The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Adagio from Mendelsohn’s Third is their crowning Proms achievement

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 37 – Weber, Schumann, Mendelssohn: Sir András Schiff (piano), Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 12.8.2023. (CC)

Iván Fischer conducts pianist Sir András Schiff and the Budapest Festival Orchestra © BBC/Mark Allan

WeberDer Freischütz, Overture (1821)
R. Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54 (1845)
Mendelssohn – Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56 ‘Scottish’ (1829-42)

The Budapest Festival Orchestra and their conductor Iván Fischer are always welcome guests at the BBC Proms. Their core characteristics: warmth of sound, generosity of spirit, coupled with a sense of adventure (even fun!) and an insatiable curiosity – even in a meat-’n’-two-veg programme such as this – is compelling.

Right from the opening oboe tuning (which only landed on the expected A-natural after a melisma and which then gave out several other tones for different sections of the orchestra), this was not an ordinary Prom. The forest-invoking horn quartet of Weber’s Der Freischütz was split into two pairs, each standing on either side of the Royal Albert Hall’s famous organ. Visually impactful, the sound, too, was fabulously clear and warm. Similarly, the line of double basses at the back of the orchestra (behind the woodwind) provided a spinal cord of depth. How beautifully the horns played, the more active lines of the second player brilliantly individual yet perfectly of the whole in terms of timbre. This was the perfect linking of superb ensemble (so together from all departments) and the frisson of live performance. The overture is a micro-drama in and of itself, and Fischer presented it as such, if only the actual opera had followed …

But this was a concert, and it was to Robert Schumann we turned. Proms performances by Sir András Schiff are always keenly anticipated, and the huge ovation Schiff received from the Prommers certainly attested to that. But then, the unthinkable: almost as shoddy an opening gesture as one can imagine. Approximate, and with the final two chords out of sync with the orchestra. The performance settled to an extent – certainly in terms of right notes – but never fully at home, musically. Schiff’s characteristic beauty of tone was certainly there, as was his wont to dwell on beauties and to bring out favoured inner lines. Much felt like chamber music, the orchestra beautifully light (in spite of the retention of the full complement of six double basses). The principal oboe and clarinet were particularly fine (Victor Aviat and Ákos Ács, respectively); it was interesting to hear the clarinet descents foregrounded as a kind of postlude to the thematic statements (so often they get lost in the texture). It was in the central movement (more an Intermezzo than slow movement) that Schiff sounded once more ungrounded, with even a sense of rote creeping in; the ear naturally gravitated towards the orchestra. The finale again felt a little insecure from Schiff. Interesting how Fischer conducted the triplet crotchets in three (as opposed to a two beat, the second cutting through the second and third triplet crotchets); but the distraction was Schiff.

Encores nevertheless were obligatory, but certainly not what one might have expected. Schiff accompanied the (standing) orchestra in one of Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder; he did get his moment of solo spotlight, though, with Robert Schumann’s ‘The Happy Farmer’ from Album for the Young, Op.68, as the second encore.

Iván Fischer conducts the Budapest Festival Orchestra © BBC/Mark Allan

Thence to the finest performance of Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony (the  ‘Scottish’) this reviewer has ever heard. All movements had strength and purpose: the beautifully shaped first movement seemed, in its slow opening, to be a blood-brother to Robert Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ Symphony; but the Allegro un poco agitato could only be from Mendelssohn’s hand. Fischer brought a chamber music translucency to this that perfectly suited the music. Certainly there was a sense of expansion about this performance, and a deep vein of lyricism. How excellently the bassoonist Dániel Tallián emerged in the rollicking Scherzo, and how the horns were a-leaping. Listen carefully, and one hears the hair’s-breadth precision of the strings. But it was the third movement, the Adagio, that was the crowning achievement of the superlative performance – perfectly judged in terms of tempo and flow, the music seemed perfect, a processional winking at Berlioz, the whole infused with a freshness in performance one rarely hears.

With that in mind, I remain unsure about the final coup de théâtre of having the sections of the orchestra stand up one by one towards the end of the finale – a sort of Mahler First Symphony ending that spreads through the orchestra. But nothing, nothing, could – or can – wipe out the memory of Fischer and Budapest Orchestra’s exquisite slow movement,

An encore, inevitably: a spirited Dvořák Slavonic Dance, No.9, Op.72/1 (or B.147/1, if you prefer). Terrific.

Colin Clarke

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