Budapest Festival Orchestra / Fischer, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

It was a lot more than opportunism laced with national pride that had the Budapest Festival Orchestra pairing off their countryman Franz Liszt with Richard Wagner in these two concerts. The influence of Liszt on Wagner, and the knock-on effect of that on the history of music, is incalculable. But how often do you hear it said or see it written? So, Ivan Fischer and his marvellous orchestra were on something of a mission as they pitched into Liszt's symphony poem, Tasso: lamento e trionfo. Lament and triumph. The irony was not lost on Liszt, who clearly saw himself in the Italian poet Torquato Tasso, misjudged by his contemporaries but canonised by posterity. The ghostly gondolier song that symbolises this journey proliferates through the piece like an obsession, repeatedly transformed with Tasso's fortunes. That which is tender and regretful becomes hail and hectoring. Fischer laid it bare with beauty and brawn. The depth and resonance of the concerted string sound gave notice of penetrating Wagner to come, the darker woodwinds - bass clarinet, cor anglais, bassoon - emerged as unlikely poets.

And so the sonic stage was set for a glorious account of Die Walküre - Act I. String basses shuddered at the onset of Wagner's electric storm, rosiny tremolandos bristled, tubas bellowed. And in the calm that followed, the violas established an inviting and yet unsettling ambience. Fischer's skill at maintaining the tension here between the first stirrings of passion and an omnipresent foreboding really paid off long-term. This performance was always going somewhere.

Three very individual singers brought the human drama to life. Alfred Reiter's physically and vocally gaunt Hunding was a palpable threat. Jan Kyhle's Siegmund used his timbre affectingly. Its intense vibrato encompasses both the lyricism and the heroic resolve. Petra Lang was a gloriously ardent Sieglinde. You could argue that the womanly mezzo-ish colour of her voice plays against the role's freshness of youth, but that is as much Wagner's doing as hers. But the openness and thrust of Lang's sound is thrilling - she lives every word, plays every emotion; she gave Kyhle's Siegmund so much. When the sword was finally pulled from the tree, her countenance was mirrored in the rolling string arpeggios that lit up the orchestra from within.

The following night, we leap-frogged to the final scene of the opera. And again, it was Liszt that spirited us there - the wild, cimbalom-jangling Hungarian Rhapsody No 1 - its teasing stop-start rubatos effortlessly turned - and the weird nocturnal procession of the first Episode from Lenau's Faust, in which the kinship with Wagner was uncanny. As was Petra Lang's transformation from Sieglinde to Brünnhilde. The darker vocal colour now paid real dividends as Wotan's headstrong warrior daughter came face to face with her angry father.

John Tomlinson, the supreme Wotan of the last 20 years, was moving in ways that other singers can't even begin to fathom. The authority is absolute. But the tenderness, so crucial to the role in general and this scene in particular, now eludes him vocally. A real piano, leave alone pianissimo, is only now possible in certain parts of the voice. As he bade farewell to his valiant child, was I alone in feeling that he might be bidding farewell to Wotan? If so, what an exit.