MUSIC / Paying the Fischer price: Anthony Payne on Proms by the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the RLPO

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FORMED in 1983 to give a limited number of concerts each year which would be exhaustively rehearsed, the Budapest Festival Orchestra has this year been granted the funds to go full time. Its philosophy has been to allow players an almost chamber music-like responsibility for interpretation, which presumably makes unusual inroads on rehearsal time. Whether this approach can continue under a much fuller schedule is a moot point. But in any case, to judge from their playing under their founder-conductor Ivan Fischer in Tuesday's prom, they had already established an impressively unified view of performance, and listen acutely to each other in complex textures to achieve a superbly integrated sonority.

Their programme opened with a buoyant performance of Berlioz's overture Benvenuto Cellini. This was no throwaway item designed simply to warm up audience and orchestra, but a brilliant and poetic reading of one of the most intense of romantic tone poems, mercurial in spirit, full of re-creative surprises.

It was followed by Liszt's First Piano Concerto in which the orchestra's co-founder Zoltan Kocsis, a formidably daring artist, brought a great freshness of vision to bear. The work can sometimes sound stiff and repetitive, but both Fischer and Kocsis achieved the sort of flexibility of phrase and tempo which can make the music live anew. When the final pages took off at hair-raising speed, it seemed a musical necessity rather than a contrived opportunity for technical display, and throughout this heroic performance virtuosity emerged as a by-product of poetic vision.

The highlight of the concert, however, was a marvellous performance of Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, an opera that loses less than most in concert performance, one whose profoundly searching and evocative orchestral score needs only the mind's theatre for a well-nigh ideal staging. Laszlo Polgar's majestic and taut Bluebeard revealed the heart of this role, while Ildiko Komlosi's Judith, demanding possession of Bluebeard's soul-secrets, sang passionately. Both singers tended to be covered at climaxes, the price we had to pay for not having the orchestra in a pit, but as the orchestral textures carry the main weight of this psychological drama the result was overwhelmingly powerful. The mournful lapping of the lake of tears and the splendour of Bluebeard's domain were unforgettable as painted in Bartok's haunting instrumental colours, and Fischer paced the opera's inexorable search with the utmost concentration.

The Hungarians proved a hard act to follow, and although the next night offered a fancy piece of programme planning in harnessing Dvorak's New World Symphony and Ives's Holidays Symphony, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra started out in indifferent form. The woodwind and horns lacked presence in the Dvorak, and Libor Pesek was not able to draw the sort of committed, spirited playing we know the orchestra to be capable of. But perhaps they had spent more rehearsal time on the Ives, for here was a performance of sensitivity and joyous abundance.

Ives's gloriously iconoclastic set of pieces, based on memories of boyhood holidays, throws up a riot of images, sometimes quietly evolving in exquisitely poetic flux, at other times clashing and warring in polymorphic superimpositions. One hears marching and dance bands trying unsuccessfully to co-ordinate their activities against a background of nature's calm indifference - wonderful stuff, and Pesek and his players characterised for all they were worth. Finally, there was another witty juxtaposition: Sousa's The Stars and Stripes Forever], the real thing, and Ives's Circus Band, which with irresistible humour runs off the rails trying to repeat the experience.

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