Budapest Festival Orchestra/Fischer, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

This was exceptional. We know from its recordings and periodic visits that the Budapest Festival Orchestra under its founder-conductor Ivan Fischer has a vitality and character all its own.

This was exceptional. We know from its recordings and periodic visits that the Budapest Festival Orchestra under its founder-conductor Ivan Fischer has a vitality and character all its own. And we have come to expect playing of rather special insight and integrity from the American pianist Richard Goode. But not often can performers and audience alike have lived through a concert more intensely from moment to moment than in this programme of the Barbican's ongoing Bartók and Beethoven series.

The first item was already electric. Bartók's Dance Suite for Orchestra (1923) is tricky to bring off. Not only does its continuous sequence of five contrasted folk-dance episodes, linked by a varied ritornello and topped by a quodlibet finale, have to be shaped into a whole, but the tempo fluctuates or abruptly changes every few bars. Yet, through his idiosyncratic combination of elegant precision and an almost histrionic physicality, Fischer found a perfect overall balance, while the weighty Budapest strings and bucolic winds simply revelled in Bartók's variously brutal, frisky and mysterious detail.

Enter Goode to give Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat, Op 19 - the first written and most seemingly conventional of the five. Yet even in the formalistic opening tutti, Fischer found unaffectedly fresh nuances in the orchestral writing, which Goode proceeded to match by the variations of touch and expression with which he seemed to reinflect or vivify the most routine runs and flourishes of the solo part, meanwhile creating a luminous sense of time suspended near the end of the slow movement. Their reading of the grander, starker Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 36, was equally revelatory; intent with contained tension even in the ostensibly serene central Largo, and with an irresistible lifting of spirits in the dancing final pages.

And so back to Bartók, with the suite from his ballet The Miraculous Mandarin - with its sleazy-symbolic scenario and fearsomely dissonant climaxes. Here many of the orchestra's distinctive qualities - the ferocity of its violas, the sinuosity of its principal clarinet, the soulfulness of its bassoons - came most vividly into their own. At the end of it all, a hugely enthusiastic audience demanded two encores- of which Brahms's Hungarian Dance No 7 proved especially delectable. Where, oh where was Radio 3 when it was so obviously needed?

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