Showing posts with label Ivan Fischer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ivan Fischer. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Budapest Festival Orchestra - more!

I've reviewed the second of the Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer Proms for The Arts Desk. Two Brahms symphonies, five stars.
About 10 minutes into the Brahms Third Symphony I wanted to check a name in the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s programme. I dared to turn a page. Bad idea. Such preternatural stillness had settled over the sold-out Royal Albert Hall that the gesture could probably have been spotted from the balcony. A motionless, virtually breathless audience is a rarity even at the Proms, where quality of listening is venerated; still, to hold around 6000 people quite so rapt with attention is an extraordinary skill in orchestra and conductor. But then, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer are no ordinary visitors...
Read the whole thing here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Must great conductors be control freaks?

After the first of two Proms by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, last night at the RAH, I'm pondering about what a great conductor can teach us about how to run things. Because running things, in general, is not the strong point of the planet right now. As you know, institutions of all kinds are mired in hesitation, disagreement, argument, ideology, trumped-up fears re political correctness, and so forth - a situation that puts our ideals and long-established triumphs (like the NHS and the BBC) in jeopardy. We need some life lessons from music: when it works as wonderfully as this, why does it do so? What are they doing right? What general principles can we extrapolate from that that might give us a helping hand somewhere else?

There is no other orchestra that I run to hear, whatever they're doing, wherever they're doing it. With the Budapest Festival Orchestra I don't look at the programme; I just go. Because it'll be fantastic. And they've never let me down yet. Their founder and conductor, Iván Fischer, has a mesmerising platform presence, like Kastschai the magician, and a feel for both the bigger picture and minute detail that is many cuts above your average concert experience.

Yesterday at the Proms the BFO and Fischer performed a mixed programme of central European fizzy treats - Brahms Hungarian Dances, Strauss waltzes and gallops, a Dvorák Legend and the Kodály Dances of Galanta - alongside possibly the best account of the Schubert 'Unfinished' Symphony I've ever heard. Within the dances, every phrase was filled with ideas, meaning, the essence of its existence drawn out: try the razor-smooth, heart-melting arch in The Blue Danube (the Danube is much more beautiful and much bluer in Budapest than it is in Vienna, btw), or the perfectly poised rubato in the Hungarian dances - true rubato, a delicious lingering and spirited catch-up, time robbed and regained.

The Schubert was dark as night, with hushed tremolandi through which one held one's breath and soft solos peering over the edge of the emotional ravine. Each section of the orchestra is so unified that it sounds like one super-instrument, whether the double-basses - ranged in a row along and above the back of the orchestra, providing a wonderful solid foundation for the sound - or the most delicate of first violin sections, poised in the long notes of the second movement as if hanging suspended in outer space (a notorious bow-shake moment, but not a hint of that here). They even went on to play the fragment of scherzo that Schubert left behind - fascinating indeed, though it proved to be an idea that doesn't share the quality of the existing movements and was possibly abandoned for a good reason.

The control was absolute, as if Fischer were a pianist, playing the ensemble the way a deep-thinking virtuoso would the finest Steinway. The BFO seems to be Orchestra Fischer in the way that the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is Orchestra Barenboim: an ensemble so finely attuned to its conductor that every flicker of thought is noted and responded to, the understanding entire and unanimous. When tiny things did go wrong, as happened perhaps once or twice (possibly thanks to the awkward acoustic on the RAH stage, which can take some getting used to), it was audible because everything else was, to put it bluntly, perfect.

Now, this sort of near-perfection doesn't happen by itself. This is a conductor in utter control of every last detail. Only by being, essentially, a control freak can a musician achieve this degree of finesse and unanimity. Take the true greats, like Carlos Kleiber: those who have seen his scores tell me that they are minutely annotated, with phenomenal detail and exactitude. Take Debussy's manuscripts: to create that glorious whole, full of colours and atmosphere, takes vast and analytical precision during creation.

So to do something worthwhile, to say something worth saying, to put across the message that is worth hearing, takes two things: the vision to create it, and the control to make it happen. A great conductor, therefore, is of necessity a visionary control-freak. A benign and hopefully enlightened dictator. One who works his players very, very hard - with players who are willing to work as hard as that. It can't be otherwise if you want the results to be as good as what we heard last night.

More than one conductor has said to me in interviews, when I've asked them about this aspect of their profession, that the idea of a democratic model in musical interpretation just doesn't work. I still hope someone will come along and prove them wrong - later this autumn I'm hoping to visit Spira Mirabilis in Italy, for example, to see how they have built their alternative model.

But until someone can prove otherwise, the evidence is that great interpretations come from musicians of genius, and that if such a figure is to get his/her message through an orchestra, he/she has to persuade the players to give, and to surrender.

I think that is what happens in the BFO. Of course, it is also unique in another respect: its players are mostly Hungarian and share a specific background and training with one another and with Fischer. (There seems to be one exception: a name in the brass section that can only be Irish.) This is the exact opposite of an organisation such as the World Orchestra for whatever-it-is - somehow I can't buy into the Peace thing right now - which now and then brings together players from all over the world who do not usually work together, with end results that can be exciting one-offs in their own way. The BFO, by contrast, is as tight an ensemble as a top string quartet. The two approaches are like the proverbial chalk and cheese.

Conductors of Fischer's calibre do not grow on trees, of course, and he is one of just a handful of living conductors whom I, personally, would run to hear at every possible opportunity (the others are Barenboim, Jansons, Nelsons and Rattle). But can these visionary, galvanising, strong-willed characters set a model for world leadership? Dictators in politics tend to be a very bad thing indeed, because they are rarely benign, rarely functioning as they do for the sake of something greater than themselves. Our maestri have (we hope) the composer's interest at heart, rather than those of their wealthy cronies or crooked party donors - yes, you have to please the sponsors when you're off the platform, and don't we know it, but once you are doing your job, that must be left aside. If you are performing great music, you won't be cornered into using your own strength to push someone else's dubious agenda when actually in the flow of your artistic creation. There's room on the concert platform for visionary thinking and the realising of its finest dreams. We could use something similar on the world stage too: leaders with altruistic vision and control-freakery to devote to making it a reality.

Dream on... But meanwhile, come and hear the BFO and Fischer tonight, when their second Prom involves Brahms's third and fourth symphonies.

You can hear last night's Prom on the iPlayer here for four weeks: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04f8ny3 (part one) and http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04f8nzx (part two)

And here is the Proms Plus talk in which Petroc Trelawny hosts a discussion of the current cultural situation in Hungary, which is not a pretty tale.

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Budapest Festival Orchestra, appealing on every level

Woke up to news today that someone in Japan has invented a way to make violin strings out of spider webs. These are said to give "a soft and profound timbre" compared to traditional metal or gut strings. They're also supposed to be super-strong. More here from the BBC - including a sample of the sound.

The violin sounds I was listening to last night, though, would take a lot of beating. The Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer were joined (at the Royal Festival Hall's Shell Classic International Series) by Renaud Capucon (right) in an ear-whirling, ceiling-raising account of a work that is rarely performed live because it's too damned difficult: Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole. This piece is to Paganini what a triple chocolate muffin is to a plain choc-chip job. You can't live with a violinist and not know it, but otherwise it's played so infrequently that even some eager concert-goers I met in the hall had never heard of it and wanted to know if Lalo is still alive and which part of Spain he came from. (Background here.)

Capucon is a diminutive figure armed with the solidity and presence of a premier-league footballer, a focused and dispassionate performance style a la Heifetz, a gigantic, scarlet tone and a Guarneri del Gesu that used to belong to his mentor, Isaac Stern. The opening notes were a bit wild, but in a way that was a relief: it means he's human. Thereafter nothing could have shaken his security. Fischer's sophisticated accompanying let the soloist shine out in this Olympian marathon of a concerto, while Lalo's rhythms bounced beneath, passed from group to group like soft rubber balls.

Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, under Fischer's super-charged baton, rose up as far more than a piece of 19th-century exoticism: this was musical storytelling at its most compelling, the second movement almost visible as a filmic battle scene for which no image could match the atmosphere of sound; and you could almost feel the spray of the storm in the finale as Sinbad's wrecked ship shudders towards the ocean bed. Fischer placed the harp at the front, opposite the leader (the eloquent Violetta Eckhardt), so that the solo moments, together with the BFO's unquakable clarinet and oboe, became almost a concertante group within the great romantic orchestra.

Details and articulation were wrought with narrative significance, the tonal palette a panorama of aural richness. The BFO's string tone does, when required, produce that heady, extraordinary, deep-dug, sock-it-to-em, Hungarian smoked paprika tone - but the key point is that it's reserved for the moments that need it, controlled by a Fischer who looked for all the world like Fokine's Kastschei from The Firebird (right - the Royal Ballet, photo by Patrick Baldwin), all magic fingers and broad, low, sweeping stance. Everything is thought through, then - yet the spontaneity of this orchestra's performance never suffers. The BFO breathes as one; they enter the flow (a phenomenon described by their fellow Hungarian, the philosopher Mihaly Czikszentmihaly) and fly together. If every orchestral concert were to be as vivid, alive and truly artistic as this, I'd be at one, voluntarily, every single night.

The BFO is not, however, an entirely happy place at present, and the presence of Brahms's Tragic Overture at the start of the programme felt like ominous commentary, even if it was not intended that way. The orchestra played it as if it were a matter of life and death. And it may be so. Funding cutbacks in Hungary are hitting the orchestra hard; at present, or so I'm told, they don't even know what their budget will be next season. I hope to bring you more details of their situation soon, but if you loved the concert as much as I did and you want to contribute to their continuation, you can help them by joining the Friends of the Budapest Festival Orchestra - there is a British Friends group and also an American one. In the UK contact: british.friends.bfo@gmail.com. The Hungarian government would have to be stark raving mad to let this orchestra go to the wall, but as things stand, anything could happen, so the BFO's international activities are becoming more vital than ever. If you love them, help them!

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Hooray for Haydn

In case you missed listings site Bachtrack's latest set of annual statistics yesterday, here they are: http://www.bachtrack.com/concert-opera-league-tables-2011

So, we learn that Handel's Messiah is still the most often performed work (no, really?), and - golly gosh - Liszt entered the top ten of most performed composers in his bicentenary year, while Chopin and Schumann were virtually semi-retired by comparison, perhaps after everyone overdosed on them in 2010. But the biggest eyebrow-raise goes to the Busiest Conductor list, which puts The Dude in top spot with Ivan Fischer at no.2 - and Valery Gergiev, formerly no.1, not even up there. Intriguing.

But here is something that really caught my eye: Haydn is consistently amongst the top ten most often performed composers, hovering around no.6-8 - for 2011 it's 8. It often seems to me that this great-hearted, pure-spirited and tirelessly original composer tends to get short shrift from the concert-going public, compared to his friend Mozart and his pupil Beethoven. But perhaps that isn't the case after all: quietly and decisively, 'Papa Haydn' is getting his just desserts after all, and they may contain chocolate.

Here is one of his piano masterpieces to enjoy this weekend: the Andante and Variations in F minor, played by none other than Paderewski.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Ivan Fischer on the future of the symphony orchestra

I just found Ivan Fischer's video blog on the Budapest Festival Orchestra's website. Here he talks about the future of the symphony orchestra - and reveals in a few succinct sentences exactly what he thinks of 'crossover' and why.



While Hungary's political and economic situation goes through what looks increasingly like hell and high water don't forget why it matters everywhere else. Let's hope that this towering musical tradition, with its purity, clear-sightedness and intensity of purpose, won't be subsumed by yet another destructive ideological steamroller. The riches of that tradition are exemplified today by Fischer and his brother Adam, Andras Schiff, Gabor Takacs-Nagy and many, many more.

A year ago Andras Schiff alerted everyone to the Hungarian political situation with a letter to the Washington Post. But of course a lot of people said what they usually say when musicians talk about politics, to the effect of "shut up and play the piano", and now he doubts he will ever return to his native land. This is extremely unfortunate, because he was right and he should have been listened to - but the opportunity to make a bigger stand early enough was effectively lost. The truth in the overview of such situations can often be astutely commented upon by those who are outside it - people who care, but whose interests are not vested - and as great musicians tend to be intelligent, passionate people whose gifts have earned them a world stage, sometimes we really ought to take some notice of what they say.

In Senegal, another world-renowned musician, Youssou N'Dour, is running for president.

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.








Saturday, May 14, 2011

After the outage...

Our host site was down all yesterday and there's a lot to catch up on now. (Is the John Lewis warranty system also powered by Blogger? Today their system is down...as I know because our fridge is bust...)

First, the 'Classic Brits'. Whatever you think about their abandonment of those two little letters '-al', they had a handful of really good winners the other night. Best of all, Tasmin Little won the Critic's Award for her CD of the Elgar Violin Concerto (on Chandos). As you will know, dear readers, she also got a JDCMB Ginger Stripe Award for it last winter solstice. The disc is seriously, highly recommended. And since other awards went to Tony Pappano and Alison Balsom, things can't be quite so dreadful and doom-laden without those two little letters as many would have us think.

Next, James MacMillan's new chamber opera, Clemency. Fascinating to hear this so soon after the Berlioz Damnation of Faust, since it proves that less really can be more. A co-commission between the ROH, the Britten Sinfonia and Scottish Opera, it's spare, concentrated, highly characterised, and packs an extraordinary number of difficult questions into just 45 minutes of music. My review is in The Independent.

Over in Hungary, JDCMB favourite conductor Iván Fischer has given a warm endorsement to JDCMB other favourite conductor, Gábor Takács-Nagy (right), who has just been appointed principal guest conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. The news comes via the lucky old Manchester Camerata, where Gabor takes over as principal conductor in the season ahead. Iván says: "There will be a very important change in the life of the BFO from next season onwards. Gábor Takács-Nagy, who was our former concert master, has been nominated Principal Guest Conductor of the orchestra. There are many conductors in the world who can get orchestras to play together but there are very few who can profoundly inspire. Gábor Takács-Nagy is one of them."

TODAY there's a live cinecast from The Met of Die Walkure starring Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund. Coming soon to a cinema near you, but if you can't get in there are a few 'encore' showings tomorrow and even Monday. Oh, and it also stars Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde, Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Eva-Maria Westbroek (aka Anna Nicole) as Sieglinde. Playbill Arts has 20 Questions with Jonas Kaufmann, in which our tenor says rather charmingly that "every composer has weak und strong points". Intermezzo disapproves of his admission that he likes Dire Straits.

Faure fans who play the piano will be very glad to see Roy Howat's spanking new Urtext edition of Glorious Gabriel's Beautiful Barcarolles, all 13 of them, clearly and readably presented by Peters Edition and correcting all manner of mistakes, misreadings and misapprehensions that apparently crept into earlier publications. Roy's Faure editions have been arriving thick and fast over the past - well, probably a decade, come to think of it - and they're evidently a labour of love. This one may well tempt me back to the piano for a long-overdue wallow. Read more about it here.

And last but absolutely not least, my interview with the lovely South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza was in The Independent yesterday. Pumeza grew up in the townships of the Cape Town area in the last decade of apartheid. Next week she'll be singing at the Wigmore Hall in a showcase concert of the Classical Opera Company, and will be doing a duet with white South African soprano Sarah-Jane Brandon. That wouldn't have been possible in South Africa a couple of decades ago. Go hear them.

Now, about that fridge...