Budapest Festival Orchestra brings distinctive sound to Beethoven

February 13, 2017 at 11:17 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Ivan Fischer conducted the Budapest Festival Orchestra Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Ivan Fischer conducted the Budapest Festival Orchestra Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Few composers are wrapped in the same amount of awe and mystery as Beethoven. Through historical processes of criticism, canonization, his music has become a means for transcendence. His legacy, as a result, borders on the mythological, and good performances of Beethoven’s music only seem to reinforce that myth.

That is how one felt Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall, where the Budapest Festival Orchestra presented an all-Beethoven program in its first Boston performance as part of the Celebrity Series. 

The orchestra, led by Iván Fischer, is strong in all sections, and the musicians play together with smooth ensemble cohesion and technical finesse. The sound is remarkably uniform, and the ensemble’s unique setup may be a contributing factor. The violins are divided antiphonally (not an unusual feature, of course) and the orchestra places the double basses along the back on risers, sandwiching the woodwinds within the string section. Most unusual, the timpanist sits in the front of the orchestra as if a soloist. The orchestra’s slick uniformity contributed to elegant readings of Beethoven’s music.

In Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, the orchestra responded with sensitivity and phrases of grandeur, with Fischer coaxing playing of lyrical grace here and sprightly energy there. 

The soloist was pianist Richard Goode, one of the most thoughtful interpreters of Beethoven on the scene today. His playing was marked with Mozartean elegance as he delicately wove the winding filigree of the opening movement with the orchestral statements. In the second movement, Goode played his theme with a creamy tone quality to make a dramatic contrast to the stark statements played by the strings. In the finale, his performance took on a nimble frolic, the rondo theme building to a stately conclusion. Beethoven’s concerto was groundbreaking for the time, but, as this performance showed, it owed much to the style that came before. 

In Sunday’s performances of Beethoven’s First and Fifth Symphonies, Fischer allowed the music to speak for itself. Tempos were well judged for the most part, but one wanted a little more sharpness and edge to the third movement of the First Symphony. Though the movement is titled a Menuetto, Beethoven marked the tempo as Allegro molto e Vivace. Fischer’s rendition kept the music to a fine balance, resulting in a fast dance rather than the scherzo-like movement as one normally experiences it. 

Fischer led with an eye to the big picture, though he took time to shape some of the phrases with fine attention. The second movements of both symphonies flowed in vocal arcs. Woodwind solos dotted the soft textures as Fischer crafted the music with subtle dynamic shading. 

Sometimes the detailed approach resulted in a flat performance. The development section of the first movement moved with a slight ebb and flow to the tempo, which put a damper on the intensity.

That was remedied in the Fifth Symphony, where Fischer led with a greater feel to the work’s drama. The strings took on a dusky tone in the famous opening theme. At the recapitulation, the theme gradually unfolded to the oboe solo, which sounded with silky resonance. The Scherzo was more stately than punchy, though the strings dug in for a rousing fugato mid movement.

Joining the orchestra for the finale were students from the New England Conservatory. Leading with broad gestures, Fischer drew playing of stirring excitement to make a grand conclusion to the work and the concert. 

The Celebrity Series will present Voces8 at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at Pickman Hall.; 617- 482-6661


Posted in Performances

One Response to “Budapest Festival Orchestra brings distinctive sound to Beethoven”

  1. Posted Feb 14, 2017 at 12:03 pm by Joyce F. Davis

    It appears that Boston is extremely fortunate to have such an intelligent, well-versed and articulate music critic as Aaron Keebaugh. I read his reviews on a regular basis. His descriptive verbiage creates images within one’s mind.

    What a brilliant writer within such a broad knowledge of music.
    Joyce F. Davis, D.M.A.

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