United Kingdom PROM 55 – Liszt, Sarasate, Brahms: József Csócsi Lendvai (violin), József Lendvay (violin), Jenő Lisztes (cimbalom), Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 23.8.2018. (AS)
Liszt (orch Doppler and Liszt) – Hungarian Rhapsody No.1 in F minor; Hungarian Rhapsody No.3 in D flat
Brahms – Hungarian Dance No.1 in G minor; Hungarian Dance No.11 in D minor (orch Iván Fischer); Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Sarasate – Zigeunerweisen, Op.20
Iván Fischer believes that ‘Hungarian folk culture is one of the greatest treasures of Europe’, and in this concert he devoted the first half to showing both indigenous examples of it and also examples of how the genre influenced non-Hungarian composers. In his clear, lightly accented English he provided spoken introductions for each item, concisely and with a certain amount of gentle humour. Firstly, he introduced the Hungarian cimbalom and its player Jenő Lisztes, who played a short improvisation to show off the instrument’s nature and capabilities. Lisztes then provided a kind of obbligato for each piece in the first half, playing throughout from memory, which was a notable feat. In Liszt’s First Hungarian Rhapsody he added solo cadenzas at the invitation of the conductor, but otherwise his contributions were modest and not over-obtrusive. That first item at once displayed superb orchestral playing under Fischer’s spirited direction.
Enter the 74-year-old violinist József Csócsi Lendvai, who has had a life-long involvement in Hungarian folk and Gipsy music. He gave a lively performance of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.1 in a version for solo violin and orchestra – the latter playing quietly in solo passages and opening up briefly when Lendvai wasn’t playing. The performance of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.3 had delicious rhythmic bounce and was embroidered by solo contributions from Lendvai.
Next we heard Lendvai’s violinist son, József Lendvay (yes, the spelling is slightly different, for some reason), who has enjoyed a rather more international career than his father. His warm tone and phrasing in Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen were a delight, and he showed off his technical skills with a vengeance in the hectic last section of the piece. As an encore he played a much-embellished version of Paganini’s Caprice on Nel cor più non sento.
After this Fischer remarked what a pity it was that father and son never played together. And so, he had he had decided to remedy the situation himself by making his own arrangement of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.11 with solo parts for both players. The quiet ending of this piece somehow seemed just the right touch to complete the concert’s first half.
Were the versions of all these six pieces ‘authentic’? For one thing Sarasate could hardly have contemplated a cimbalom being played in his Hungarian flavoured Spanish composition. But it didn’t matter: the whole six-piece medley was most enjoyable on its own terms, thanks in no small measure to Fischer’s skills as a presenter.
The second part of the concert contained the strangest performance of the Brahms symphony that I have ever heard. The tone of it was set right at the beginning. Usually conductors bring out the insistent slow rhythm with a decisive beat. Fischer didn’t. He didn’t even beat it as such, but moulded it in a series of long phrases. The tempo was fine, but there was no strong impact in the music as there should be. For the following Allegro section Fischer adopted a fairly brisk basic tempo, on which he performed various unusual but interesting fluctuations, even if they didn’t seem particularly useful. But there was no toughness in the music, no rhythmic strength and it was all too lyrical.
A certain gravitas was missing again in the slow movement, also taken at a basic tempo that was on the fast side and also with various changes of speed. Somehow the music didn’t register as being sufficiently grounded. Fischer’s gentle, smooth phrasing worked better in the Allegretto since it is a naturally lyrical movement. The sense of mystery and anticipation that is usually evoked at the beginning of the finale was rather missing in the conductor’s laid-back approach and the pizzicato section was quite stiff and inexpressive. And when the big tune arrived it was taken too smoothly. When the occasion arose to increase the tempo Fischer obliged, but the playing was deficient in passion and lacked a strong backbone. The coda was managed quite nicely but there was no sense that the mighty intellectual and emotional arguments contained in this great symphonic structure had finally and satisfactorily achieved resolution.
As an encore the orchestra played Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.4.