From Budapest with love, Carnegie Hall’s finest hour belongs to Hungarian musicians

By Raymond Beegle
Monday, March 14, 2016

Conductor Iván Fischer

Conductor Iván Fischer

Iván Fischer, Music Director and Conductor
Mar-André Hamelin, Piano
Thursday, February 18th, 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York
Carl Maria von Weber Overture to Der Freischütz
Franz Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-Flat Major
Sergei Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major

Among the various orchestras, domestic, and foreign, that have had their musical say this season on the Carnegie Hall stage, each has its own particular voice, but no voice expressed a more unique quality, tone, and temperament than that of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Perhaps this has, at least in part, to do with the uniqueness of the Hungarian language in the world community, its brilliance of timbre, its depth, and its strongly punctuated nuance when either spoken or sung. The orchestra members, almost all Hungarian born and educated, reflect these qualities collectively in their music making as well, giving the impression of a singular unity of ensemble and intent. From the marvelous string unisons in the opening of the Freischütz Overture, at the beginning of the program, to the final Eastern Orthodox chant, sung by the entire ensemble as an encore, one was struck by the breadth of tone color, the exquisitely shaped phrases, and the dramatic commitment of the entire ensemble.

In the Weber work, the spirit of earlier times was recalled; the spirit of Nikish and Furtwängler, not very often encountered in today’s facile note perfect performances popularized by von Karajan and Bernstein. A virtuosic display of mystery, piety, élan, and heroism, crowded into ten minutes of music brought an extended volley of cheers, well deserved, from the packed theater.

Liszt, Hungary’s eminent spokesman was represented by Canadian pianist Marc Andre Hamelin, who played the first piano concerto with the technical fireworks well in hand, but perhaps with poetry and beauty of tone, a little less attendant.

The apocalyptic Fifth Symphony of Prokofiev was given a less dramatic less razor edged iron and steel reading than I remember from a performance with James Levine I heard several years ago at Lincoln Center, or the live BBC broadcast recording with Rozhdestvensky and the Leningrad Philharmonic. These two earlier readings were focused on the outside, the battlefront, nature, the business of life, but tonight the eye seemed to be turned inward to the souls who lived these experiences. All of this was done with impeccable ensemble, incisive dramatic overlay, and deep imagination on the part of the individual orchestra members as well as the conductor. To date this was the most satisfying and committed performance of any visiting orchestra this season. 

Raymond Beegle reviews classical music and opera for the New York Observer and Fanfare Magazine. For many years he was Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese.  Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.