Saturday, September 03, 2011

Triple Paprika! 'Hungarian Dances' is in Proms Lit Fest

Stop-press news: I'm reliably informed that my novel HUNGARIAN DANCES is to feature as one of Tasmin Little's chosen books in the Proms Literary Festival this afternoon. Tasmin will be discussing her literary favourites at the Royal College of Music at 5pm and the talk is broadcast the interval of tonight's Prom on BBC Radio 3. An extract will be read - I understand they've picked a passage about Gypsy music and the violin in particular. Catch it at the college, on the radio or later on the iPlayer (or catch the book here). That is Paprika part 1 - or chronologically speaking, part 3.

Paprika part 2: Today comes hot on the heels of a truly fabulous evening with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer last night. It's all true: Ivan Fischer did indeed become the first conductor at the Proms ever to throw a toy animal from the podium into the arena.

The BFO is unmistakeable for its characteristic mix of suave, smooth sound and absolutely direct, deeply engaged musicianship; as I said in the feature yesterday, when they play you feel the love. This was no exception: they made me fall in love with Mahler in earnest. After two years of head-bludgeoning Mahler-anniversary overkill, that takes some doing.

The first half was unusual for its mix of irony and magic: first, fizzing, demonic Liszt. Mephisto Waltz for once was convincing, seductive, genuinely sensual - and whatever did that harpist do towards the end? Whatever it was, she deserves a medal. Mahler's Blumine blossomed gently and suavely as the concert equivalent of a 'prequel'. And the Liszt Totentanz - usually a bit of a waste of space - proved a brilliant vehicle for the pianism of Dejan Lazic (right). He is a seriously classy player with a singing, certain touch and a terrific feel for Lisztian flair. He also brought along an unusual encore: a spoof fugue by an Italian composer, Giovanni Dettori, which would seem familiar to the younger members of the audience. It did. Fortunately I'd taken my niece with me; she kindly explained that this brilliantly-wrought Bach-style piece was based on a Lady Gaga song. (Now Neil Fisher of The Times has tweeted a link to the sheet music - so you can see it is real!)

And so, Mahler 1. Empathy, detail, brilliance, flow and energy: everything was there. Fischer's was a Mahler straight from the heart and guts, tempered by a sensible and incredibly perceptive brain. Shaping of narrative couldn't have been more convincing if it tried - especially the final movement, with its gradations of dynamic in the distantly approaching triumph. I'm a great fan of the orchestra configuration preferred by Fischer at this concert, with the double basses raised in a row along the back providing a solid, oaky depth across the board and the first and second violins opposite each other at the front of the stage. The tone produced is balanced, clear and homogeneous. And this Mahler symphony, for the first time, felt too short. I could happily have listened to it all night.

But that's where the third part of 'triple paprika' enters: the late-night Prom, complete with flying bunnyrabbit. The orchestra summoned us back from interval fun with one of the violinists playing some Transylvanian folk music while everyone settled down. The orchestra appeared in its everyday clothes and Fischer took up a microphone to explain how the event would work. We each had a raffle-ticket; the tuba player perambulated through arena and stalls asking punters to draw a number. Three numbers, three pieces, and sometimes a flying rabbit to catch, to choose another. Then the vote, which got everyone beautifully heated as we shouted for our favourites and hissed when someone tried to pick the Ravel Bolero.

Everything came off very slickly and rapidly - obviously the band, its conductor and its librarian are a dab hand at the logistics - and between numbers, while the parts were found and distributed there were chances for small groups of musicians to strut their solo stuff: a brass ensemble piece from the movie Eight and a Half, a Telemann piece for four string players, some Bartok violin duos, some more folk music, four percussionists doing a brilliant body-percussion turn and, last but not least, the tuba player with a didgeridoo.

So what did we end up with? Kodaly Dances of Galanta; Bartok Romanian Folk Dances; Strauss Music of the Spheres Waltz; Glinka Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila; and the Hungarian March from Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. The idea is that the orchestra has no idea what it's going to play beforehand and has had no rehearsal, so anything can happen. Obviously, they knew certain of these numbers inside out and backwards. They gave the Hungarian pieces a terrific workout; the most challenging item seemed to be the Strauss waltz, involving sensual and well-calibrated ebb, flow and old-world rubato.

Two conclusions to draw: first, that this was an inspired format for orchestral display of the first water. The solo spots let the individuals shine as they can and should, and if the BFO plays like that unrehearsed....pas mal, hein? Ivan proved a great showman too: "Pass the tuba to somebody who thinks it's all a trick," he instructed. Secondly, the informality of the event made it terrific fun and the music and musicians shone all the brighter for that.

Once again, it was the usual Budapest Festival Orchestra achievement of sending you home walking on air, feeling glad to be alive. Could we do Audience Choice here? Well, whyever not?

No video available from last night, but here they are playing The Blue Danube in Heroes' Square, Budapest. The Danube, taken literally, is much bluer in Budapest than Vienna.