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Reviews

Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall
24 May 2017

Budapest Festival Orchestra: a scintillating Bluebeard

Ravi Shankar’s posthumous opera Sukanya drew a full house to the Royal Festival Hall last Friday but the arrival of the Budapest Festival Orchestra under their founder Iván Fischer seemed to have less appeal to Londoners - which was disappointing as the absolute commitment of Fischer and his musicians to the Hungarian programme that they presented was equalled in intensity by the blazing richness of the BFO’s playing.

Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall

Above: Krisztián Cser

Photo credit: Péter Herman

 

Not surprisingly, Béla Bartók was the fulcrum of the evening: but the programme was paradoxically both cohesive in spirit and diverse in medium. We enjoyed Bartók’s Hungarian Peasant Songs, presented with a decidedly Romantic slant, and an astonishingly transparent and detailed performance of the composer’s one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, both of which were preceded by examples of the folk sources from which Bartók’s invention sprang.

I feared that the first half of the concert was in danger of turning into a lecture-recital, with the visceral experience of the music itself pushed aside by scholarly ethnographical explanation. And, by the time we reached the interval, my misgivings had not been entirely dispelled. Fischer began by offering a brief introductory account of Bartók’s ethnographic research and innovation, supplemented by some archive recordings. Then, we had the ‘live experience’ as folk singer Márta Sebestyén and three instrumentalists performed some of the folk songs that had so stimulated Bartók’s musical imagination in the early years of the twentieth century.

Sebestyén - confident, composed, wryly playful but absolutely honest - is a master of her material; she makes no concessions, her tone quite hard but direct, but she has a piercing gaze and was a captivating presence in her deep red dress. But, why on earth did the RFH not provide surtitles? For it’s difficult to respond and evaluate when one doesn’t have a clue what situation, action or emotion is being conveyed in song. Moreover, given that Sebestyén’s attire seemed to nod in the direction of ‘authenticity’, why were her fellow musicians - playing folk violin, viola and double bass - dressed in Western concert dress? (The sticky resin-capped fingerboards of András Szabó’s viola and Zsolt Fejérvári’s double bass seemed a droll rebuke to the context in which they were performing.) Perhaps I was alone in sensing an air of constriction: I wanted these performances to break out more exuberantly. In the song offered at the end of the first half, the toes of violinist István Kádar did indeed seem to be twitching as nimbly as his fingers, and Fejérvári’s snapping pizzicati and fingerboard-cracking slaps did suggest that the music would flourish with freedom in the bar afterwards. But, I felt this was an ‘experiment’ that did not quite come off.

Fischer’s reading of Bartók’s Hungarian Peasant Songs (1933) - an arrangement of 9 of the composer’s 15 Hungarian Songs for piano that date from twenty years earlier - emphasised the lyricism of the melodic writing and the richness of the orchestral colour. The opening unison was strikingly dense and opulent in tone and if the string playing was gloriously silky - and the players relished the characterful glissandi and harmonics, leader Violetta Eckhardt sometimes turning to smile at her section - woodwind and brass offered occasionally nasality to prevent the performance slipping into the syrupy folk nationalism of Brahms or Dvořák, and there were some darker colourings from the timpani and low brass. Fischer was simultaneously alert to the details and free in gesture: flicks and sways elicited precise responses by players who know their maestro well.

It was a real joy to experience such an attractive orchestral sound, but it was an extraordinarily vivid performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, by turns crystalline and ample, that brought the concert alive. Fischer himself recited (from memory) the opening narration while simultaneously indicating the beat to the musicians behind him. As the conductor gradually tightened the psychological screw, the BFO made every single one of Bartók’s scintillating, brilliantly defined sonorities tell, from ecstasy - the gleaming blast of golden C Major at the opening of the fifth door - to tragedy: the pathetic, weeping undulations of the lake of tears revealed behind the sixth - ‘What is this water?’ Judith gasps, her incredulity tinted by celesta, harp and flutes.

Hungarian mezzo-soprano Ildikó Komlósi has - according to the programme - sung the role of the naïve, curious Judith over 150 times. I have heard her sing the role twice in the last two years: here at the RFH with Sir Willard White’s Bluebeard in a performance by the LPO conducted by Charles Dutoit; and at the Proms in 2016 (again with Dutoit, conducting the RPO, and alongside John Relyea as Bluebeard). This time, however, I missed the ‘freshness’ and ‘youthful excitement’ I found in these previous interpretations. Certainly, there was an assured sense of dramatic progression but Komlósi did not convince me that she was an impetuous young bride, and her mezzo is not as steady as it once was. That said, there was real poignancy in the quieter moments, as when arriving at the castle, the disconcerted Judith questions, ‘What no windows?’; and, the astonished horror of the realisation, ‘Your castle is crying!’ was equalled for delicate expressivity by the cellos’ oscillating string crossings. Komlósi has the power, too, to ride the orchestra tumult: her demand that Bluebeard open the doors was spine-chilling and, though at the bottom of her range, her insistence that she be given the keys and her observation that ‘Your castle’s walls are bloody’ were perturbingly penetrating.

Bass Krisztián Cser was a striking portrait of steely repressed emotion allied with an almost unwelcome recognition of power - ‘You see the extent of my Kingdom’ - and of his own capacity for violent domination. There were hints of vulnerability too: ‘Judith, Judith’ Cser cried, accompanied by a lovely cello solo, and at times the warm horns suggested heart-feeling submerged and suppressed.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra pride themselves in being one of Gramophone’s ‘top ten’ world orchestras. On the evidence of this stirring and disturbing performance, the accolade is fully deserved.

Claire Seymour

Ildikó Komlósi (mezzo-soprano), Krisztián Cser (bass), Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (conductor).

Royal Festival Hall, London; Tuesday 23rd May 2017.

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