That's "Happy Anniversary, Franz Liszt", to you and me. It's the big Hungarian shebang at the Royal Festival Hall tonight. The Budapest Festival Orchestra and its founder and music director Ivan Fischer are here to play Haydn, Liszt and Beethoven; the Hungarian president, culture minister and a raft of ambassadors will be in attendance; the soloist in birthday boy Liszt's Piano Concerto No.1 will be our UK piano top-dog, the one and only Stephen Hough. It promises to be quite a night.
. It doesn't seem to have hit the website yet, though, so I am reproducing it here. First, here is the orchestra with Fischer back in 1998, performing the Mozart Requiem in Heroes Square, Budapest, marking the BFO's 25th anniversary and given in memory of the victims of the 1956 Revolution.
If you go to the Royal Festival Hall this Sunday, listen out for a lot of Hungarian around the foyers. Speakers of this fearsomely complex language will be out in force: 16 January marks the London launch of both the Hungarian presidency of the EU and the 2011 bicentenary year of that Hungarian-born musical legend, Franz Liszt.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra will mark the event in a special concert of music by Haydn, Beethoven and Liszt himself. On the podium will be its founding director, the Hungarian-Jewish conductor Ivan Fischer.
Fischer is an undersung genius of the podium: he is among the most inspiring conductors in the world, yet one who has not entirely gained the universal recognition his musicianship deserves. Despite having held distinguished posts with orchestras in the US and western Europe, Fischer has always elected to return to his native Budapest, which has remained off the beaten musical track relative to Vienna and Berlin, although it boasts a magnificent cultural tradition and is home to the groundbreaking, influential and egalitarian system of musical training devised by Zoltán Kodály.
The combined Liszt bicentenary and Hungarian EU presidency represents an exceptional opportunity for the country to boost its international and cultural profile. “It will not change anything in Hungary,” Ivan Fischer comments, “but it may change the perception in other countries about Hungary. The country has a very rich culture and a very troubled present situation.”
That is all too true. In the financial meltdown that began in 2008, Hungary, its currency plummeting and unemployment rising, was on the edge of bankruptcy. Having enjoyed a boom in property and film-making (it offers strong financial incentives for foreign film-makers), it has been hard hit by the crash. Last year its notorious far-right, openly racist Jobbik Party won 47 seats in the 386-seat Hungarian parliament.
Fischer, though Jewish himself, takes a pragmatic view of this: he elects to use music as a positive and inspiring symbol of enduring humanity. “The situation is uncomfortable,” he acknowledges, “but our concerts with the Budapest Festival Orchestra are important to many people there, including the 100,000 Jews in Budapest. There is growing nationalism and racism in Hungary, with hatred against the Gypsy community. One needs to stand up against these tendencies. There are also great people there.”
Fischer was born into a musical Hungarian-Jewish family in Budapest in 1951; his elder brother, Adam, is also a celebrated conductor, currently music director of the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. His earliest memories include the experience of the 1956 uprising, crushed brutally by Soviet forces while the world’s attention was diverted towards the Suez Crisis.
“I was five years old,” he recalls, “and I remember that we had to go to the cellar because of the shelling by tanks. The air pressure broke our windows upstairs. It was very cold until we found somebody to repair the glass.” Fischer nevertheless recalls childhood in 1950s-60s Budapest as “fun” and his musical studies progressed rapidly, encompassing piano, violin, cello and composition.
Later he studied conducting in Vienna with Hans Swarowsky and subsequently Nikolaus Harnoncourt, whose influence on him was prodigious. Still, his big break took place right here in the UK, where he won the Rupert Foundation conducting competition in 1976. This opened doors to guest conducting with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra, with which he undertook a world tour in 1982.
His posts have included principal conductorships with prestigious international orchestras, most recently that of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC, and he has been showered with honours: Gramophone’s Artist of the Year, Hungary’s Kossuth Prize, the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in France, and the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum in recognition of his services to help international cultural relations.
His family background is remarkably similar to that of Mahler: both had ancestors who were shopkeepers in the Tatra mountains. One of Fischer’s great-grandmothers, though, studied the piano with Franz Liszt himself. “When he wanted to convey the proper rhythm for a Viennese waltz, he danced with her all over the classroom!” Fischer recounts.
The concert on 16 January will include Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1 with the British pianist Stephen Hough as soloist. Among the most famous of Liszt’s orchestral works, it represents the tip of the Lisztian iceberg that the bicentenary hopes to address -- for this sometimes controversial composer is still substantially misunderstood today.
“Liszt was an innovator, a pioneer,” says Fischer. “Some of his works are underrated because the main value, in his day, was the novelty.” This could sound paradoxical, but Fischer has a point: with hindsight, the original impact of such innovation is lost. “It seems less interesting today, 200 years later.” This is a valuable opportunity to reassess a composer whose works often paved the way for the iconoclastic musical developments of the early 20th century.
Fischer founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra in 1983. Despite being in demand everywhere from the Israel Philharmonic to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, nurturing the BFO has remained his number one priority. The orchestra’s repute has grown incrementally and together they have brought Budapest some superb initiatives designed to widen the audience, with Cocoa Concerts for children, Surprise Concerts in which the programme is not advertised in advance, and One Forint Concerts in which Fischer talks about the music from the podium.
But the biggest innovation remains the BFO itself. A New York Times review has described the orchestra’s “dark, full sound” and “appealing energy that seems to flow from a combination of bottom-up and top-down leadership”. It is an ensemble of indubitably Hungarian character, playing with fabulous passion and conviction as well as absolute musical rigour.
“My main interest has been to create an orchestra of artists who are emotionally involved and creative,” Fischer says. “With some orchestras music-making feels like working and I think it should be playing. It is good that we use the word “play” for playing an instrument.” He is planning to cut back on his guest conducting, he adds: “I would like to stop completely in a few years and concentrate on my own orchestras.”
Fischer is also a composer, and this is where his fascination with his Jewish roots is most strongly reflected. “I compose sometimes,” he says modestly, “usually simple, tonal, vocal works. Many of them have Yiddish texts. This is because I fear that without compositions this language may be forgotten in a few hundred years. Others should also compose in Yiddish.”
Two of his Yiddish choral works for women’s choir, Sait gesund and A nay kleyd, were commissioned by Dutch television; and his most celebrated work is Eine Deutsch-Jiddische Kantate (A German-Yiddish Cantata), which has been performed in several European countries and the US, though has yet to be heard in the UK.
On Sunday the BFO can show us exactly what joys their country’s admirable music-making can deliver. But in a climate in which culture is under assault by funding cutbacks across Europe and the States, does Fischer feel that music and its audiences can continue to thrive? He does indeed. “Music will always survive,” he says simply. “It is essential to people. I am not worried.”
Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, 16 January. Box office: 0844 875 0073