Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Budapest Festival Orchestra - Puccini, Gluck, Haydn, Wagner & Brahms - 10/12/09

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Puccini: La cecchina - Una povera ragazza... - Wierdl Eszter
Gluck: La Clemenza di Tito - Se mai senti... - Wierdl Eszter
Haydn: Concerto for Cello in C Major - Steven Isserlis
Wagner: Overture to Lohengrin
Brahms: Symphony No 3 - Third movement
Wagner: Die Walküre - "The Ride of the Valkyries"
Brahms: Symphony No 2 - Third movement
Wagner: Parsifal - Wie dünkt mich doch die Aue heut so schön... (Good Friday)
Brahms: Symphony No 4 - Fourth movement

Finally! After weeks of careful planning and unrepressible giddiness, I was off to the Habsburg triumvirate of Budapest, Vienna and Prague, in addition to Berlin, with exciting plans of exploring the cities during the day and enjoying live performances at night. No phone, no Blackberry, no laptop, just me unreservedly indulging in as many visual and musical revelries as possible. Hungary's capital ended up being the starting point of this grand adventure because, well, after mulling things over long and hard, it just seemed to work better that way.
To kick things off in style without feeling totally out of place, what better company than Budapest's and the NSO's very own Ivan Fischer conducting his pride and joy: the Budapest Festival Orchestra? Hearing them last season at Carnegie Hall was such a treat that I couldn't resist repeating the experience on their home turf. Renowned cellist Steven Isserlis was to be the special guest for the 8th year of the popular "Bag of Surprises" concert for which, as its name indicates, no program is announced in advance. So on my second night in Budapest, I went to the brand new Palace of Arts, totally determined of not letting the newly arrived bitter cold and pouring rain dampen my fun. And fun was to be had, indeed, in the sleek and high-tech concert hall, which reminded me a lot of Strathmore. I can't say that I'm not particularly partial to modern architecture, especially when it come to performance venues, but at least the acoustics were flawless. Seeing Ivan Fischer again was, needless to say, a most welcome sight, even if I did not understand a darn thing he was saying. Luckily, my neighbor kindly filled me in on the explanations, and the music did the rest.

The first part of the program was a contest between two 18th century opera composers, Puccini and Gluck, each being played by one half of the orchestra. The soprano was Hungarian native Wierdl Eszter whose young, unaffected beauty was the perfect reflection of her appealingly articulate voice. She oozed sweetly demureness during Puccini and let her romantic juices flow freely with Gluck. An interesting pairing for a truly lovely singer.
Steven Isserlis was actually not a surprise, but the work he was going to play remained unknown until Ivan Fischer announced Haydn's rightfully popular cello concerto, which was in fact an excellent surprise. Although I'm not a die-hard Haydn fan, this particular piece never fails to hit the right spot with its delicate poetry and delightful playfulness. Both qualities were masterfully highlighted by an unflappable Steven Isserlis, who was backed by the orchestra in more than fine form. The audience was so appreciative that the soloist eventually came back for an ethereally beautiful encore whose languorous rhythm gently rose in a breath-holding silence. Less was more.
Then things really got cooking with a take-no-prisoner dual between, of all composers, Wagner and Brahms, the orchestra alternating the two opponents with unbridled enthusiasm and rigorousness until the very end. After Wagner's gorgeously romantic overture to Lohengrin filled the auditorium with unabashedly passionate sounds, the third movement from Brahms' third symphony was fun and care-free, lifting everybody's spirits. Wagner responded with a wild, mean "Ride of the Valkyries", which put some focused energy back in the game, and Brahms' third movement of his second symphony gave the audience, if not the orchestra, a welcome break with its characteristic lightness and serenity. No to be outdone, Wagner came back with Parsifal's "Good Friday" tune, which unfolded in all its meditative radiance before Brahms stroke again one last time with the last movement of his last symphony, concluding the battle with manifold grandiosity. Ivan Fischer kept everything under tight control with his customary unpromising involvement and unwavering energy, and the sold-out audience rewarded him with a rock star-worthy ovation. Köszönöm, maestro Fischer, and please come back to Washington soon!

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