Classical music: Cracking players - and paprika too

Rob Cowan journeys to Budapest to meet Ivan Fischer, the man who has cracked the secret of the Great Hungarian Orchestra

The drive from Budapest Airport to the city centre takes you past rows of grimy tower blocks and "Rob and Bob's Dunkin' Donuts" to the Danube and the rattle of cars on cobbled streets. Our object was to catch one of the Budapest Festival Orchestra's midday concerts at the Franz Liszt Academy, and, with weather and traffic on our side, we arrived on cue.

"Great! You made it," exclaimed the conductor, Ivan Fischer, "but we must hurry: I should be on the rostrum now!"

The hall itself is like the Wigmore writ large, ornate and welcoming, rich in greens and golds with sheltered choir seats and regal chandeliers. It was packed to capacity: youngsters chattered and pensioners gossiped while the orchestra rehearsed fragments of Liszt or Bartok. Fischer's method is to speak first and play later, explaining, provoking or inviting questions, and only then making music.

Today, though, we were hearing something rather special, Liszt's Third Hungarian Rhapsody flavoured with the aural paprika of two cimbalons (Hungarian box-zithers), a clarinet and the seductive fiddling of a local Gypsy celebrity, Jozsef "Csocsi" Lendvai. The idea was to combine Liszt's ideas and Franz Doppler's orchestration with the Gypsy sounds that inspired them; the result, a sort of symphonic improvisation, worked wonderfully and met with stamping approval. But Bartok's Divertimento (which Fischer conducted from a seat among his players) took the audience by surprise - especially the nightmarish slow movement, where shock fortissimos prompted audible intakes of breath.

Audiences are almost as important to Fischer as his orchestra. "Stanislavsky speaks of two kinds of audience," he says. "There's the one that applauds the tenor, shouts `bravo!' and then forgets everything; and there's the one that, although less obviously demonstrative, goes home, calls a friend and discusses the personal issues that were awakened by the performance." Fischer's audiences invariably fall into the latter category - and no wonder, with Hungary's best orchestra running the show.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra was parented by Fischer and pianist Zoltan Kocsis in 1983, drew its ranks from a plethora of home-grown talent and in 1993 proclaimed an outdoor performance of Beethoven's Choral Symphony to an ecstatic audience of 30,000. That was to mark Russia's military withdrawal, and the chorus included Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Romanians and Hungarians. Last year Sir Georg Solti celebrated what was to have been an on-going relationship with the BFO by recording key works by Bartok, Kodaly and Leo Weiner (forthcoming on Decca). The programme was originally scheduled to be repeated in concert this March.

Fischer recalls his "very interesting contact" with Solti. "We both came from Hungarian-Jewish families," he says, "though in his case the political situation in the Thirties forced him into exile. `I wasn't in the position to do the same as you,' he once said to me; `but had I enjoyed that same opportunity, I too would have stayed to help develop the Great Hungarian Orchestra.' Solti had pledged his support, he accepted the title of Conductor Emeritus and was happy to embark on his first musical project in Hungary after years of exile."

But the BFO is very different to the other ensembles that Solti conducted. "We take risks and we don't shy away from being individual," says Fischer. "One criticism I have of the `usual' symphony orchestras is that, at auditions, they often settle for people who merely `fit in' well. I prefer to take people who are conspicuous by their personalities. I don't think that one should always avoid conflict or discussion, and I see our methods as more open than the self-congratulatory attitudes of certain other orchestras."

The basic idea is to take the musicians' creative impulses as a starting- point - "to make sure that the players remain artists, but that they still achieve a unified body of sound. Our ground-plan is to ensure that, for example, the `second' woodwind players also have a chance to lead. We have regular section rehearsals - almost like a youth orchestra - and many more full rehearsals than usual."

The BFO's repertoire ranges beyond Bartok, Kodaly and some less fashionable Hungarians (including Erno Dohnanyi and Jeno Hubay) to the Mahler and Bruckner symphonies (currently being tackled at the rate of one a year) and such challenging moderns as Sandor Veress, Matyas Seiber and Gyorgy Ligeti.

Fischer also speaks of "a constant flow of classical symphonies, with smaller forces playing in a smaller hall, using natural horns and trumpets". The classical concerts are invariably entrusted to Peter Szuts, expert on period instruments and leader of the main orchestra's second violin section.

As to our afternoon concert, sitting among those music-loving locals was an object lesson in how to listen. But then, music is a perennial presence in Budapest. A couple of miles away, Bartok's well-worn Bosendorfer is in urgent need of repair; but if you visit the composer's last Hungarian home, you can gaze through the windows at the same evergreens he saw, study his travelling chess set, glance at his books (Dickens, Flaubert, Baudelaire) and enjoy framed sketches for stage productions of his Bluebeard's Castle and The Miraculous Mandarin. The eight-per-cent Gypsy population includes many roving musicians, fiddlers most of them, and when Csocsi's playing added extra spice to our evening meal, the privilege was tinged with ineffable melancholy.

In these parts, music has always provided comfort in times of pain. And political turmoil has invariably meant exile, or worse. "Szell, Reiner, Fricsay, Dorati, Solti," Fischer reflects, "they all left - they made their names elsewhere. And a lot of orchestral players left, too. I meet Hungarian musicians everywhere, from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam to the Chicago Symphony." Which may be one reason why Hungarian orchestras have, in the past, proved markedly inferior to those from neighbouring Prague and Vienna. "With us, chamber music was always a priority. There have been marvellous Hungarian string quartets and solo instrumentalists."

And so Fischer, ever the pragmatist, has built on Hungary's talent for "small group" performance. "We actually play like a quartet," he says, "and we practise like one, too. We do things slowly, discuss, try a few musical exercises, learn how to listen to each other. But when I visit other orchestras, they start a piece, the conductor interrupts, he gives them instructions, and they go on... This is not my method."

The point becomes doubly clear when you sit in on a BFO rehearsal. Preparations may include repeating a single concerted chord until the right tonal blend registers, or playing a difficult passage at half speed, or sectioning off some dialogue between violins and basses. At one point, the orchestra's excitable concert-master, Gabor Takacs-Nagy (ex-leader of the Takacs Quartet), jumps to his feet and admonishes a double-bassist for playing too loudly. The scolded player points his bow at a section of the score, retorts by pointing out the written dynamic, then tries again. Takacs nods, and all is well. Later, Fischer signals his players to start, leaps from the rostrum into the main hall, walks to the rear of the stalls, then climbs back on stage and walks through the orchestra, testing the acoustical response at each juncture. Nothing is left to chance - except those re-creative risks that are so crucial "on the night". The result: a cracking orchestra with the temperament of a soloist.

Later that evening, Fischer conducts one of the most gripping accounts of Liszt's Faust Symphony that I have ever heard, muscling in on Faust's conflicts, tenderising Gretchen and goading Mephistopheles into some wicked virtuosity. He also opts for the rarely-heard orchestral ending (though his new Philips CD includes the more familiar choral option as well). In fact, it is so remarkable that even a promised box at the nearby opera cannot tempt me from repeating the whole experience the following night. Needless to say, I am not disappointed.

Fischer's BFO recording of Liszt's `Faust Symphony' is out now on Philips (CD No 454 460-2 PH)

Suggested Topics
Sport
world cup 2014A history of the third-place play-offs
News
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer Tommy was last surviving member of seminal band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
The Mexico chief finally lets rip as his emotions get the better of him
world cup 2014
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Voices
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
Life and Style
Several male celebrities have confessed to being on a diet, including, from left to right, Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ryan Reynolds
...and the weight loss industry is rubbing its hands in glee
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Sport
Yaya Touré has defended his posturing over his future at Manchester City
News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

    £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

    C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

    C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

    £60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

    Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

    £75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice