Review: Orchestral Showpieces, Budapest Festival Orchestra

Thursday, February 18 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer, conductor
Marc-André Hamelin, piano

Weber, Overture to Der Freischütz (1821)
Liszt, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1849)
Prokofiev, Symphony No. 5 (1944)

Time is short and hotspot is weak, so I will get to the point.  Hectic as yesterday was, I asked myself if I really wanted to attend Budapest Festival Orchestra’s performances at Carnegie Hall, and while I did end up going, the orchestra left more questions than it answered.  For instance, why were the double basses stationed all the way at the back, behind the winds?  Who is Weber and why haven’t I listened to his music before?  Is Liszt underrated or overrated?  Is this the lowest-energy performance of Prokofiev ever?  Most importantly, can the brass winds hold mandatory master class for American orchestras?

Weber was, according to the program notes, a seminal member of the German Romanticism school.  But since his last name does not begin with B, I can be forgiven for overlooking him.  I should correct this oversight right away though, since the Der Freischütz overture is a truly exquisite piece, at once familiar and refreshing.  Is it traditional for the horns to make a point of standing up for their solos and then walking across the stage to their seats during the performance?  It was awfully distracting, but the horns’ theme was gorgeous and evocative, both the music itself and the playing thereof.  Overall the piece is more folksy than your standard Germanic repertoire, but I would also never have guessed that it’s an operatic overture.  In any case I’m grateful for the introduction to this composer.

It is probably a Hungarian law that no Hungarian orchestra can go on tour without playing at least one piece by Liszt, even if the composer of Hungarian rhapsodies was himself decidedly more Austro than Hungarian.  Though nominally one of my favorite pianistic composers, I’d never given Liszt’s orchestral pieces a chance, projecting rather unfairly that they must be flamboyant showcases for the soloist and nothing more.  After all, the last time I attended a performance of this particular concerto, the soloist was Lang Lang in a leather tux, and I pretty much zoned out after the 7-note opening motif.  This time my attention paid off, as I found the piece surprisingly (though why should it be?) complex and balanced.  There certainly were long stretches of virtuosic cadenzas for the pianist, but the orchestra played more than a mere supporting role.  In particular, the second movement is a masterpiece in polyphony, with different sections of the orchestra entering at different measures in an intricate pattern, which Mr. Fischer deserves much credit for overseeing.  Organizationally the concerto is like a cerebral puzzle, with the 7-note opening motif returning in different guises as a guide, and the musical palette created is, perhaps rhetorically, much more complex than Liszt’s usual solo piano fare.  My one complaint is that the soloist Mr. Hamelin overplayed his part, at times taking so much liberty with rhythm and touch that the piece was brought to nearly a halt, sucking any energy out of the stage.  Liszt, if nothing else, was famous for his theatrics, and it’s almost as if Mr. Hamelin, in striving for the same, achieved precisely the opposite.

As far as 20th century symphonies go, Prokofiev’s Fifth is among those that I’m most familiar with, especially the stealthily (?) energetic second movement, thanks to it being on my playlist during the five days that I once spent walking across western Spain.  Widely perceived as an emphatic salute to the Allies’ impending victory in WWII, it has often been unfairly compared to the much more ambiguous fifth symphony of Shostokavich.  Between the soaring, almost Romantic melodies of the first movement and the march-like beats of the second and fourth movements, Prokofiev’s Fifth is an unapologetic war song written to rally a crowd.  This performance, however, was very conservative.  For such a large orchestra–probably the largest that I’ve seen at Carnegie Hall this season–and a piece designed to bring down the house, the performance lacked tautness and, again, theatrics (Mr. Fischer’s dance-like conducting during the second movement notwithstanding).  It is a shame, really, because the wind players really played their heart out.  The principal clarinet aced every note, and the brass section is superior to that of any American orchestra.  Even if as a whole the performance did not come together, their effort alone was worth the price of admission (though admittedly, it helped that I was able to purchase an inexpensive rush ticket).

European orchestras have a flare for dramatic encores in New York, and this one takes the cake.  After three rounds of applauses, the conductor reassumed his position on stage and the musicians put down their instruments and instead each picked up a sheet of paper.  Turns out, they were going to sing a 5th-century liturgy as part of a public outreach to encourage everyone of every talent level to sing.  The solemn tone of the piece itself was in stark contrast to the humorous occasion, but well done Mr. Fischer, the orchestra sang better than it played.
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