The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s highs and lows

The Budapest Festival Orchestra and their music director Iván Fischer came to the Musikverein last night with an odd program of Bartók (Dance Suite for Orchestra Sz 77), Paganini (Violin Concerto No. 1), and Chaikovsky (Symphony No. 5). It’s not bad programming per se, but it seemed a little bit on the random side. I suppose the Bartók and Chaikovsky both have dance things going on? (Which is something you could say for a lot of music.)

I really like this orchestra, with their dry sound and vaguely Russian brass, but I wasn’t as blown away this time as I was by their Konzerthaus concert last September. But they are still a very good orchestra indeed. If only this program had come together a little better. The Bartók Dance Suite was new in title to me, though I’ve heard some parts of it before in other Bartók pieces. It was an unusual choice to open the program, because the orchestra is treated quite sectionally and it was hard to get a good sense of their general sound. However, the playing was very fine, with wonderful transparency between sections.

Yes, really.

Judging by the hobbit hair and the PR accompanying his CD, violin soloist József Lendvay sees himself as the embodiment of the demonic Hungarian Gypsy fiddler. But while his first Paganini concerto would be suitable for a Heuriger somewhere, this astonishingly sloppy performance was not fit for the Musikverein. Granted, he has a rather good flying staccato and plays it all very quickly, but more notes were wrong than right, and most of them were not in the right places, either. The whole concerto was pervaded by rubato and twisted rhythms with no musical logic, and even simple passages showed little grace and wretched intonation (nearly every harmonic squeaked in the way they do when you don’t tune them quite right). Just awful. He got a large ovation, making me distrust the collective ears of the Viennese public (this was perhaps not the usual crowd; they applauded a lot after the first movement of a perfectly conventional concerto, I wanted to in the hope that he would stop). Paging Julia Fischer! Or Hilary Hahn! We need you!

(I prefer writing positive reviews, I really like liking things, but I understand why people bash performances so much. It is so much easier to write. I think it is richly deserved in this case.)

It could only get better after that. And it did. The Chaikovsky Symphony no. 5 was very good, a good completion for my Jansons No. 4 and Barenboim No. 6 earlier this season. Fischer had his eye on the trajectory of the entire piece, starting off restrained and somber in the first movement. The horn solo in the second movement was a bit disappointingly blank, but the movement built up to a very impressive and clearly planned climax, even though the movement itself feels like leftovers from the Symphony No. 4 (fate motive? check. pizzicati? check.) plus some of the better bits of the Swan Lake finale. The third movement was quiet, played as a soft interlude between the outpourings of the second and fourth, and the staccato passages in the strings could have used more lightness. The fourth movement turned very gaudy, with the bright brass pretty much blasting everyone else out of the water. The ending was taken at an impressive clip, perhaps to disguise that it is about 4 minutes of straight V — I alternations.

A mixed bag but mostly redeemed by the Chaik.

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer, conductor. Musikverein, 5/11/2011. Program: Bartók, Dance Suite for Orchestra Sz 77; Pagaini, Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major; Chaikovsky/Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5 in e minor.

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  1. Amused by the thing you sent me about Frodo's 'entsprechende Würze und Stimmung' – oh, so that's what they're calling foul intonation now! 'Ich hab’s nur gewürzt! Paprika Geschmack!' is a wonderful euphemism I will be using for my cello playing from now on. I still think Lendvay was trying to channel some old school as well – Oistrakh is the name I meant to mention. The difference being that his authority was never called into doubt, no matter how questionable the portamento or wayward the tuning. About Wednesday, you alluded to critics who seem to live for bad performances, but the playing didn’t really lend itself to a rant. My reaction was to corpse uncontrollably all the way through it, which I didn’t beat myself up too much about. Even peinlich, a Lieblingswort of mine, doesn’t begin to describe the spectacular loss of dignity we witnessed. As usual, Die Presse had their best man on the case, the aurally clueless Walter Dobner, who raved it (as I predicted). And so yet another ‘our musical judgement is special’ Wiener waves goodbye to his credibility.

  2. PS Sorry to make Spass at your expense, but it is rather titillating: just noticed that you've spelled 'Iván Fischer, conductor' as 'Iván Fischer, confuctor'.

  3. In my defense, D and F are next to each other on the keyboard. My typing, you see, was inspired by the antics of our violinist.

    Yeah, the sugary sweet tone and big vibrato are also typically old school (my suggestion was Isaac Stern though Oistrakh also makes sense, also perhaps Mischa Elman?).

    Regarding writing I was not even considering sadistic critics (not that they don't exist). It's just easier to point out what was wrong with a demonstrably bad performance than pin down exactly what was special about a good one, where the art can conceal the art to some extent.

  4. An understandable typo, I know. But it's funny so I'm going to tease you anyway. Riccardo Muti however… I wouldn't want to confuct with him (ba doom ching). You also inspired a business idea, batons for the insecure Maestro. To be launched with the Confuctor XL.

    I'm inclined to agree, that it's probably easier for critics to write a blistering take-down than to unwrap what makes a performance good. But I don't observe a tendency to pan rather than rave. And it's hardly as if raving is difficult either. Substitute the acid drops for cliché-infested fawning et voilà. Norman Lebrecht aside, I don't believe a single critical word was written about Simon Rattle in the British press during the 1990s, for instance. Perception is lacking in both positive and negative reception, but optimism is pointless as it's so hard to find a critic who isn't a complete idiot. It's like it's part of their genetic code. Sinkovicz's parochialism makes me think of Hanslick and I'm convinced that Tommasini must actually be related to Olin Downes. Have been reading a lot of Downes recently in connection with Mahler & Second Viennese School and it's criminally cretinous.

  5. I already suspected Valery Gergiev was confident in his abilities. Now I know it.

    I guess because I'm not a pro critic and not in any way important like a big newspaper critic would be, I feel a need to continually justify my readworthiness (that is horrible Denglisch, though I do not know the German word, would it be Lesenswertigkeit? Lesensnotwendigkeit?) by trying to be as informative and precise as possible. Sometimes I want to fawn because I looooved something and attempt to stop myself. Not always successfully. As you say, that shit is just not interesting or informative to read. Neither is dismissal. In opera, this usually comes in the form of "the old days were better" (see Bernheimer, Martin who really should just go home and listen to his wax cylinders because it's clearly the only thing that makes him happy) and I just have no patience at all for that.

    BTW I don't think much at all critical has been written about James Levine in the NYC press until extremely recently.

    On the positive side, I always enjoy reading the FAZ's opera reviews.