PROM 53: Wonderfully Satisfying Brahms Brought to the Proms from Budapest

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 53: Brahms: Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 26.8.2014 (CS)

Brahms:Symphony No.3 in F major
Symphony No.4 in E minor


Following their Bank Holiday programme of orchestral showpieces, which included three of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra returned to the Royal Albert Hall to perform two of the more cerebral works from Brahms’ oeuvre – the Third and Fourth Symphonies.

With numerous ensembles from overseas visiting the RAH, performing programmes comprising works written for infinitely diverse combinations of instruments and voices, it has been interesting to observe the various seating plans adopted and to reflect on the musical and acoustical results of such choices.  In this case, I was particularly struck by the effect of raising the eight double basses on a platform behind the woodwind: ‘lifting’ the bass line in this way, emphasised the robustness of Brahms’ complex cross-rhythms and syncopations, while Fischer’s flexible crafting of the rhythmic tensions, coupled with the ‘springiness’ of the basses’ warm sound, created a relaxed forward propulsion.  Other instrumental groups were similarly isolated and raised – the horns in a square four, stage left, and the three trombones, stage right, next to the timpani – and this allowed moments of melodic and structural import to be effectively and expressively highlighted, but without undue bombast.

In both symphonies, Fischer emphasised the Romantic richness of Brahms’ melodic writing and varied orchestral textures rather than the Classical erudition of the composer’s formal conundrums and conflicts.  Encouraging a rich, warm vigour from the strings, and soulful, heart-tugging solos from woodwind and horns, the conductor found the players of the Budapest Festival Orchestra fully in accord with his approach and sentiments; swaying and physically embodying the music, they seemed almost to be remembering and reliving the Hungarian Dances of the previous evening.  Tempi were fairly swift, and in the most intricate contrapuntal passages clarity was sometimes neglected in favour of more murky tensions and ambiguities.  Perhaps there was occasionally a lack of incisiveness in the more dramatic passages, but the climaxes were energetic and bright.  The overall result was a cogent, if distinctive, account.

Pressing swiftly through the two striking woodwind chords which open the Allegro con brio of the Third Symphony (1883), Fischer urged dynamic playing from the first violins, the entire sections’ up-bow movements sweeping with a dramatic flourish; a unified feeling was also conveyed by the strings’ glowing tone.  There was an exciting sense of showmanship and heroism at the start but this gave way to more gentle, chamber-like, textures; in particular Ákos Ács’ graceful clarinet second subject sang lyrically.  Fischer coaxed the woodwind solos to the fore, and was rewarded throughout the evening with exquisite woodwind playing, although initially there were some occasional slips of intonation in the louder passages.

In the second movement, Ács was joined by first bassoonist Daniál Tallián in an expressive duet, the undulating triplet motifs of which unfolded effortlessly and beguilingly.  Fischer also took some risks with the tempo and pulse in this Andante, employing extensive rubato to draw attention to significant violin passages to both interesting and convincing effect.  The sighing phrases of the well-known C Minor Poco allegretto immediately established a yearning air, the soaring cello phrases gleaming through the light rippling of the other string voices.  Taking over the melodic mantle, horn player Zoltán Stöke produced miraculously mellifluous playing, the phrases spilling as if in a single breath, tender yet golden of tone.  Fischer injected fresh drama into the surging melodies of the Finale and the horns added a swaggering grandeur to the climax of the central development section.   But, it was not simply an onward surge to a monumental close: the viola’s muted murmurings interrupted the momentum, and Fischer relished yet another moment of surprising, guiding the movement through its gentle unwinding to the relaxed, quiet conclusion.

The Fourth Symphony (1884-85) has one of Brahms’ most concentrated, intricate designs, but once again Fischer took a relaxed approach to the formal arguments, preferring to focus on the expressive nature of the material and orchestral colours.  Moreover, the thematic integration of the symphony was emphasised by Fischer’s attention to melodic details and phrasing, and this was immediately apparent in the rolling cello melody which opens the Allegro non troppo, with its chains of thirds and sixths, which was simultaneously grave and proud.  The staccato accompaniment to the cellos’ and horns’ sombre second subject initiated some of the tension that had previously been lacking, and Fischer sustained a mood of unrest through a ruminating Andante moderato, the alternating passages of shadow and luminosity creating an air of mystery which was emphasised once again by the conductor’s flexible rubatos.  The dance-like joyfulness of the Allegro giocoso would have been further enhanced perhaps by more dazzling accents from the strings, but there was a welcome lightness and movement after the sombre second movement.  If the final Allegro energico e passionato did not quite capture the mood of tragic grandeur which Brahms surely intended, Fischer ensured that the chordal chorales were both impressive and self-possessed, the busy complexity of the intervening chaconne theme variations never overwhelming the poise of these chordal statements which form the movement’s architectural frame.  A greater recklessness and release characterised the closing moments, as the coda drove forward to an intense and satisfying conclusion.

On Monday evening, the women of the Budapest Festival Orchestra surprised the Prommers with a sung encore, their performance of one of Dvořák’s duets being accompanied by the instrumental playing of their male colleagues.  On this occasion, the entire orchestra stood to sing Brahms’ part-song, ‘Abendständchen’ (Evening Serenade, Op.42 No.1), and in so doing they confirmed the essential place which song has in Hungarian life, music and culture, a centrality which had been so compellingly articulated by Fischer’s own interpretation of the preceding symphonies.

Claire Seymour

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