Classical review: Budapest Festival Orchestra - Bohemian rhapsody marred by clash of styles


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The Independent Culture

In 2011, Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra played two BBC Proms in one night. The first was a meticulously disciplined programme of Liszt and Mahler, the second a jamboree of party pieces and encores, selected by raffle from a list of some 200 works. Encores are the great disinhibitors of classical music and they have served Fischer and his orchestra well. Now 30 years old, the BFO can melt the cognoscenti with musical kitsch, compete with the finest in core symphonic repertoire, and deliver Beethoven with the transparency of period instruments. Whether this should all be attempted in one performance is another matter.

On Monday, Fischer opened the first of the BFO's four UK concerts with Dohnanyi's Symphonic Minutes, a sugar-rush of kaleidoscopic orchestration and machine-age moto perpetuo, half warm-up, half come-on, all party piece. The change in dynamic, ambition and aesthetic from this to Beethoven's First Piano Concerto was awkward, and the stylistic connection to Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra entirely superficial. Fischer's placement of the principal woodwind players among the first and second desks of the strings gave unusual sweetness to the sound, but his reading of the Beethoven and that of the piano soloist, Imogen Cooper, didn't quite coalesce.

Where Fischer darts from playfulness to awe, Cooper plays coolly and ruminatively, her sound beautiful but introverted. The first movement cadenza – the longest and most discursive of the three Beethoven wrote a decade later to explore the range of a bigger instrument – sounded studious rather than improvisatory. While the audience yielded gratefully to the seductions of the clarinets, bassoons and natural horns in the Largo, Cooper seemed unmoved. The Rondo sparkled effortfully, with little sense of jest. The great sob of Budapest's cellos and basses gave focus to the Bartok, a work of profound gloom and reluctant showmanship written to order by a dying and exiled composer.

Fischer's careful navigation of the five-movement arc was thrown off-course when the central Elegy was disrupted by a dropped tam-tam. It must happen to the best of percussionists at least once in their lives.

Jonas Kaufmann's (Royal Festival Hall, London ****) recital of Verdi and Wagner arias with the Philharmonia and conductor Jochen Rieder last Sunday illustrated perfectly why one should always stay seated until the last encore is over. Handsome of voice and face, the tall, lean German tenor is at the top of every casting director's list these days. While the first half's selection from Luisa Miller, Simon Boccanegra, Don Carlo and La forza del destino was beautifully sculpted and controlled, it was not until the fourth encore that we heard Kaufmann's Verdi at its best, in Macduff's aria "Ah, la paterna mano" from Macbeth.

Kaufmann is a cautious singer. In Verdi, this can lead to a somewhat detached approach, as though he were concentrating harder on stylistic conventions than on character. While his half-voice is artful, he is more moving when he simply finds a sweet spot and sings. Artificially darkened Italian vowels sound, well, artificial, whereas the gleam of his German has real electricity. The vulnerability and innocence he brought to Walther's "Am stillen Herd" from Meistersinger was truly extraordinary. Two encores from the Wesendonck Lieder made one wonder why he hadn't programmed the full set. Either way, the Wagner liberated his Macduff.

Streetwise Opera's exuberant pasticcio, The Answer to Everything (BFI, London ***), wove together live and video-recorded performances of music by Handel, Vivaldi, Gounod, Schumann, Britten, Emily Hall, Orlando Gough and Gavin Bryars in the setting of a conference organised by Locateco Solutions, fictional leaders in the "single person re-homing market". The satire was broad, the passion tangible as professional and amateur performers from London, Newcastle, Gateshead and Middlesbrough, many of them with experience of homelessness, explored the dreamworlds of corporate delegates, cleaners and health and safety managers. A single from the show, of the Handel aria "Lascia ch'io pianga" is available on iTunes.

Critic's Choice

The walls of Jericho collapse as director-designer Charles Edwards stages Handel’s 1748 oratorio Joshua for Opera North, at Grand Theatre, Leeds (from Tue). Pianist and French music specialist Paul Roberts shines a spotlight on the creative relationship between Debussy and Ravel in an afternoon lecture-recital at London’s Wigmore Hall (Sat).