After a Night to Warm Up, Fischer and Budapest Shine in Schubert

United StatesUnited States   Schubert, Bartók: András Schiff (piano), Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 29-30.10.2011 (BH)

Concert 1:

Schubert: Overture to Die Zauberharfe (1920)
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 1 (1926)
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945)
Schubert: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, D. 485 (1816)

Concert 2:

Bartók: Hungarian Peasant Songs (1914-1918, arr. for orchestra 1933)
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 2 (1930-1931)
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944, “Great” (ca. 1825-1828)

Following Iván Fischer’s stunning Don Giovanni at this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival, expectations were high for these two Carnegie Hall concerts with the distinguished pianist András Schiff and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. But the magic didn’t really appear until the second night, when listeners who braved a freak New York snowstorm were rewarded with a richly detailed Schubert Ninth Symphony.

On the first night, Fischer adopted an unusual orchestral layout for Schubert’s Overture to Die Zauberharfe (The Magic Harp) with double basses dead-center against the back wall, and a small chamber ensemble gathered around a piano (already in place for Schiff). Two wind players sat on the piano bench, with the rest standing behind the instrument, where sheet music was laid out flat – including Fischer’s score – as disarming as if the musicians had gathered to rehearse in someone’s home. And the work’s Rossini-like gallop – even more dramatic thanks to the orchestra’s slightly dark timbres – made a fine curtain-raiser.

Fischer and Schiff are old friends, which made the somewhat unsatisfying Bartók piano concertos (Nos. 1 and 3) hard to fathom. In the First (perhaps significantly, the only one in which Schiff used music), its rhythmic bite was diluted: conductor and pianist seemed of two minds about the tempos. Fischer was constantly glancing at his colleague behind him, and Schiff, when given the opportunity, seemed to want to dash off, leaving the orchestra behind. The ensemble’s tang was a pleasure on its own, but the uncertain flow and phrasing made it hard to really enjoy. The Third fared somewhat better, with fewer coordination issues, a wondrously dreamlike second movement, and Schiff in general seeming more comfortable. But given the stature and track record of all concerned, these performances couldn’t be counted among their most memorable.

Another unusual layout marked the Schubert Fifth Symphony: the cellos and double-basses were scattered like soloists throughout the orchestra, perhaps to encourage an even finer blend. In any case, the result was pleasant, with some gorgeous work from the winds, but ultimately missing that last spark. Following applause that was polite – Fischer was barely summoned out a third time – he asked the audience to vote on an encore, “Would you like more Schubert or more Bartók?” Since some of us answered the question with “both,” he did just that: selections from Schubert’s German Dances and Bartók’s Romanian Dances, all very stylishly done.

The second night was so much better that I wondered if plain old jet-lag were to blame for the previous day’s lack of energy. (In effect, the musicians were playing at 1:00 a.m., Budapest time.) And unfortunately, an unexpected late-October snowstorm caused some in the audience to stay home. For Bartók’s Hungarian Peasant Songs, the woodwinds sat circling the podium with the strings standing – standing! – behind them. In the opening “Ballade,” the group immediately sounded like its old virtuosic self, and overall, the eight songs had friskiness and drive.

In the second of Bartók’s piano concertos, Schiff sounded much better, too, especially in his solo passages. The supernaturally quiet second movement contended with a bit of audience rustling, quickly damped by Schiff putting a finger to his lips, but the frantic middle interlude was completely in sync, and here the piece finally snapped into focus. The final Allegro molto brought forth the pianist’s most fiercely satisfying playing, with the ensemble in mad abandon along with him.

But the prize came in Fischer’s gorgeously evocative Schubert, a Ninth Symphony to treasure. The orchestra’s precision and dynamic contrast made the first movement highly effective, and showed there are more moments of surprise than one might think. In the second movement – featuring outstanding contributions from principal oboist Victor Aviat and principal clarinet Ákos Ács – the unusual up-front placement of the winds made perfect sense. By the third movement the group seemed to be having enormous fun, spinning out danceable rhythms with ease, reveling in the sheer joy of the score.

The finale, packed with rhythmic vitality, only confirmed the triumph; the same orchestra that wowed audiences in Mozart’s opera just two months ago had returned. My listening companion – pondering the orchestra’s lineage and unique sound – felt completely transported, as I did. This time the encore felt more justified: Bartók’s “Dance of the Urog Swinherds” from Hungarian Sketches, dispatched as if someone had pressed the “maximum verve” button.

Bruce Hodges