United Kingdom Bartók, Mahler: Barnabás Kelemen (violin), Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 26.8.2012 (SRT)
Bartok: Hungarian Peasant Dances
Violin Concerto No. 1
Mahler: Symphony No. 5
It’s exciting to have Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra in Edinburgh, but this concert felt very much like a game of two halves. With Bartók they were on home territory in the first half and they got right inside the composer’s rhythms and timbres, infusing the Hungarian Peasant Songs with a delectable Magyar swing. When they play Hungarian music the orchestra has a somewhat off-centre sound with tangy brass and a slightly acidic tone to the strings that gives them a very distinctive colour. They can follow Fischer to the edge of pianissimo, as they did at the opening of the Bartók violin concerto, and the conductor spun out the first movement in a seemingly endless flow of sound that carried the soloist with it.
The swagger with which he strides onto the stage made me feel at the outset that Kelemen would be an ostentatious showman, and there were elements of that in the second movement, but he played the Andante first movement with beautifully effective legato and lovely portamento that gave his playing an extra edge of class. He brought exactly the same qualities to a glorious account of the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor partita as an encore, the full, Romantic tone giving the piece and extra edge of luxury.
The orchestra played the concerto with lyrical sweep and a touch of vulgarity when necessary. If only they’d brought some of that to the Mahler! They played with beautiful sound and scale, but this very much felt like Mahler with the edges smoothed off. I’ve sensed this when listening to Fischer’s Mahler recordings too: he plays the symphonies as examples of perfection, almost as museum pieces, but in smoothing off the edges you undoubtedly lose something that is key to the composer’s make-up. This was a performance of no risks where beauty was everything, something showcased in the wholly unnecessary move of putting the principal horn next to the conductor for the Scherzo, as if he were a concerto soloist. For me this completely skewed the feel and purpose of the movement and, lovely as was the sound, the first three movements of the symphony struck me as being safe, a word that should never be applied to Mahler.
Things improved with the Adagietto, taken at a pacy enough tempo so that it was never allowed to flag, and the finale moved with genuine bounce, the final appearance of the D major chorale cresting over the finishing line with elation. I couldn’t shake the feeling, however, that too much of the performance was a missed opportunity, despite the ringing ovation from the Usher Hall crowd.
This concert was recorded and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 12 September.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 2nd September at a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk