Memorable Concert from Empatheic João Pires and Superb Budapest Festival Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, Brahms: Maria João Pires (piano), Budapest Festival Orchestra / Ivan Fischer (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 20.5 2015 (GD)


Mozart: Overture, The Magic Flute
Piano Concerto No.9 in E flat, K 271
Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op.68


There was no particular connecting theme here apart from the first two works being by Mozart. In fact it was a very conventional affair with the standard overture, concerto, and grand symphony. Fischer deployed  quite a large string section for the two Mozart works, with four double basses lined up at the rear of the orchestra. Thankfully the antiphonal layout for the violins proved very effective throughout the concert.

After a very broad and solemn opening Fischer, in the ‘Magic Flute’ overture, paid great attention to clarity in the contrapuntal design of the pening subject (actually a fugue). The important woodwind parts were beautifully played and crafted, although occasionally I missed some woodwind detail, no doubt due to the large string deployment. But  later I played the Klemperer version (from the complete recording of the opera) and he manages to sustain quite stunning woodwind clarity with a similar largish string compliment. Also, at the arrival of the mid-section with the solemn chords given out three times by the wind-band (a masonic signal which is the only theme in the opera the overture makes reference to), I had little feeling of dramatic anticipation – they were just played – in a rather bland manner. Fischer deployed what looked like period timpani with hard sticks, but most of the time they were barely audible! But this could well have due in part to the hall’s restricted acoustic. Also I missed those dramatic brass flashes in the rhythmically dynamic coda.

I know it has been said countless times, but I must again express  a certain sense of wonder, even awe, that the  K 271 concerto masterpiece  was composed by a 21 year old! Here the young genius from Salzburg ‘found himself’ as a composer.  As one commentator put it ‘such unique works can only be compared the other early masterpieces culminating in his first great opera Idomeneo of 1780 – 81. K 271 is the only Mozart  concerto in which he lets the soloist expound the first theme after a concise energetic upward phrase in the orchestra.  Beethoven, who revered Mozart, would later use the same model in his fourth and fifth concertos. Tonight this came off with empathy and dialogic finesse, João  Pires in fine form throughout. Mozart’s orchestration here is rich and expansive, while, at the same time, incredibly economic. As in other of Mozart’s compositions in E flat major the first movement is coloured by a ‘hunting horn’ ambience. The horns’ mellow but brazen voice supports the solo piano’s espousal of the second subject when it returns in the recapitulation. Indeed the humorous chains and trills (from both soloist and orchestra, on their own or together) are a precursor for those of K.449, and the breadth and pomp definitely point the way to K482’s opening Allegro both later concerti also in E-flat. Fischer tended to tone down the horns’ more bravura declarations. And although they were always audible, I would have welcomed more open bravura energy, especially in the movement’s jubilant closing chords.  Conductor and soloist were always together, although here and there I had the sense of João  Pires wanting to move on a little more. Also she found more of the inimitable Mozart ‘sparkle’ and flowing elegance than Fischer allowed. It was traditional in concerto form at the time for the orchestra to take over after the completion of the exposition, giving the soloist a rest so to speak. Here, however,  the soloist fearlessly enters again delicately, but sharply interweaving in and out of the orchestral procession into the short but elaborate development. Another departure from Mozart’s earlier concertos is the striking use of asymmetrical phrase lengths and chromaticism.  All this was brought off with a real sense innovation and dialogue. Mozart wrote several cadenzas for K271; tonight João  Pires played the so called ‘B’ set, which he probably kept for himself. Notable here was her magical lightness of touch, a lightness which however is so ‘there’, so resonant; also her amazing tonal/dynamic contrasts, with meticulously well timed pedal-work. As they used to say of Clara Haskil and Annie Fischer (no relation to the conductor), she is a born ‘natural’ for Mozart.

Both the Andantino (more a slow movement) in C minor, and the Rondeau  finale were splendidly negotiated by both conductor and soloist, with none of the occasional reservations noted in the first movement. The Andantino, with its trills, appoggiaturas and its frequent use of Neapolitan sixths presents problems for any pianist; both conductor and soloist have to enter into the world of  opera – the whole movement as an extended ornate arioso. I found particularly impressive the way in which João Pires and Fischer played in dialogue in the recitative-like material in canon, with the pianist’s phrases answered in overlapping echo by the violins. As one commentator put it, ‘the whole movement is like a scene from tragic opera. In contrast the finale is pure opera buffa. Pianists still find Mozart’s elaborate writing for the keyboard daunting, with its overlapping of right and left hands, but with João Pires everything sounded so spontaneously integrated into the whole design.

Mozart wrote the concerto for the young French virtuoso Louise Victoire Jenamy. not ‘Jeunehomme’ as the concerto is still erroneously attributed to. But apart from this naming error, she must have been a very accomplished pianist indeed. Also of especial distinction was the way in which the sparkling buffa mood is suddenly interrupted by a highly expressive minuet. It was a sheer joy to here the way in which João Pires entered into a quasi intimate conversation here with the elegant pizzicato figurations on strings – with muted inner strings. Mozart repeated this’innovation’ in his later concerto in E flat, K 482.

As a delightful encore Joaos Pires played a beautifully phrased rendition of Schumann’s ‘Vogel als Prophet’ (The Bird as Prophet), No.7 from Waldszenen. Op. 82.

Fischer’s attention was very much on the ‘sostenuto’ in the opening of Brahms’ First Symphony. It was refreshing to hear Fischer eschew all traces of  portentous heaviness in the great C minor opening procession of themes, which he took at tempo somewhere between the swifter tempo adopted by    Toscanini  and the slower tempo of more teutonic conductors like Furtwängler, and more recently Thielemann. I would have expected Fischer to  observe the exposition repeat, but this did not seriously effect the movement’s overall structure, and Fischer’s grasp of it. The main allegro moved with great attention to rhythmic/ lyrical contrast. Fischer slowed down considerably for the lyrical E flat section after the main dramatic exposition, with wonderful playing, especially in the strings. This release of lyricism/melody sounded irresistible, although on repeated hearings I think I would tend to find it tiresome.  – he Beethovenian cross-rhytms in the lower strings which initiate the second subject proper werel a model of clarity, although they lacked the fire and drama Toscanini used to bring to them – but very few conductors have equalled the Italian maestro here.    The mysteriously modulated ‘pianissmo’ in the F minor section,  preceding the vast recapitulation with its augmentation between basses and bassoon (the contra bassoon fully audible in its grotesque timbre throughout) and the distant solemn ring of the trumpet, which is usually kept legato pianissimo, was given a slight accent before each entry. It sounded convincing because it was in total accord with Fischer’s bold and unorthodox view of the music.In the final recapitulation climax with the four-figure rhythm in drums and basses Fischer made a kind of delayed action dramatic pause (similar to the old German ‘luftepause’) no doubt to add an extra degree of dramatic frisson. Again, in concert it sounded quirky but convincing; but I am not so sure it would sustain repeated hearings

Again,  Fischer   convinced in the ‘Andante sostenuto’ by revealing that it actually sounds more satisfying  that way, which  sounds quite self-evident until you hear the distorted and dragged-out meal that many other conductors make of it. And to all of those who are yet to be convinced of the importance of antiphonally placed violins,  Fischer gave us an object lesson  in the mellifluous clarity of the counterpoint thereby achieved in the full string melody iniated by the four-bar phrase. The coda was enhanced with solo violin figurations for once blended with the rest of the orchestra,  rather than developing into a miniature violin concerto as it so often does. It was also most sensitively played tonight.

The ‘Un poco allegretto’ gained in its overall design by being inflected with a sense of movement. Indeed Fischer’s linear, ongoing way reminded again of Toscanini; although Toscanini inflected the B major trio with more brio especially in the woodwind and horn writing.

Fischer’s rendition of the C minor opening of the finale was full of brooding and mystery, but I wish he had observed more the ‘Piu Andante’ marking in the ‘Adagio’ – an adagio with movement- not an adagio which drags as is so often the case. There was indeed a kind of sustained tension here, especially in the ominous pizzicatos, but it needed more ‘movement’.   mazingly (at bar 25) the ff diminuendo/pp timpani roll was played as that. Most conductors hold the roll when no hold  is asked for by Brahms. Of course when done in the incorrect way, the timpanist has his day in the sun  and the audience (the more unmusical of them) are thrilled. The advantage in playing the passage in the correct way however, is that the single notes in the double basses and double bassoon, which are blotted out by the timpani when played incorrectly,  are audible and thematically prefigure the wonderful glow of the C major horn call. Apart from tonight’s performance I have only heard Toscanini, Klemperer, Monteux,  Weingartner and Wand play this passage as marked.

Wisely  Fischer did not labour the famous melody which opens the finale,  thus making it integrate more on each successive entry with the rest of the related thematic material. I have not heard many performances of this passage  that so skilfully integrate counterpoint (as that leading to the great recapitulation climax initiated in E flat),  lyricism (as in the C major return of the lyrical theme stated in the initial allegro in minor key form)  and dynamic / rhythmic contour and inflection in both the development section and in the great coda itself. In the winding down of the recapitulation in the deep bass, with throbbing timpani, Fischer introduced a substantial ‘ritardando’, rather in the Furtwängler manner. But it was so well articulated, and like Furtwängler, integrated into the whole structure of the finale so as to silence any criticism. Again on repeated hearings I imagine it would sound mannered   For once,  the coda did not sound as though it was tacked on,  so to speak. It emerged as a logical corollary of the preceding thematic/harmonic content. Nor did Fischer    over-emphasise the initiatory grand series of modulations which loom large in in the deep bass (Brahms makes it quite clear in the score that he does not want a visitation from  Leviathan here). By adhering to the ‘sempre ff’ of the score,  the great C major brass chorale restatement of  its initial appearance  in the movement’s introduction (‘the most solemn note in the whole symphony’ for Tovey) sounded noble rather than inflated and pompous.

As a delightful and fitting encore Fischer rounded up members of the orchestra to sing (very well) Brahms’s choral song  ‘In Waldeseinsamkeit’ (In the Lonliness of the Forest ) No.6, from Op.85.

Overall, and despite my criticisms, this was a compelling and memorable concert,  not least for the superb playing of the Budapest Orchestra, with its more grainy and trenchant ‘Eastern European’ sound, but really having a tone and way of playing all their own. Fischer has been conducting them now for thirty years, and the marvellous rapport between him and them really shows.  Their CD showing is now quite extensive, but I look forward particularly to some Mozart Piano Concertos with Maria Joaos Pires, who has a wonderful empathy with their sound-world.

Geoff Diggines

Leave a Comment