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)