The Night of Jests and Jauntiness
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
Igor Stravinsky: Scherzo à la russe – Tango – Suite from “The Firebird” (1919)
Josef Haydn: Cello Concerto in C major – Symphony Number 92 in G major (“Oxford”)
Miklós Perényi (Cello)
Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (Conductor)
I. Fischer (© Anna Meuer)
Was this any way to open a serious program of concert music??
Seated on stage is a full orchestra – minus violins. The orchestra begins with a razzmatazz theme without a leader. Suddenly, from stage right appear not only the entire violin section, to stand and play by the side, but the conductor, waving his baton spiritedly, smiling, high-stepping it up like a group of Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.
Audience purists might have thunk, “This must be some kind of joke.” And they were literally correct. This was Stravinsky’s Scherzo, literally a joke, taken at a joke tempo by Iván Fischer and his beloved Budapest Festival Orchestra.
Nor did the Festival Orchestra festivities end there. With barely a beat after the Russian Scherzo, a male viola player and a female viola player met in front of the stage, embraced, and started a tango, while conductor Fischer conducted from the back. A wild tango too–again by Stravinsky–danced almost to the last. Just in time, both players rushed to their seat and played the final tango note.
Iván Fischer is no Victor Borge. He is a most serious conductor. But with these two starters, both of them from his 1940’s period, Mr. Fischer showed the jauntiest face of Stravinsky. The Tango (originally for piano) was possibly the lightest work he ever wrote. The Scherzo was written for a jazz orchestra, though it is more jovial than jazzy.
Mr. Fischer seemed in the best of moods, though perhaps the largely Hungarian audience didn’t know the problems he had encountered when the Budapest Festival orchestra was created. I happened to have been in Budapest around that time, and Mr. Fischer, with his emphasis on practice, long rehearsals, and above all quality was very very much opposed to the lackadaisical musical scene. That attitude had been a hangover from the Communist government.
The orchestra (the name comes from its first performances during what Budapest calls “Festival Week”) has gone from strength to strength, since Mr. Fischer has personally molded, shaped, disciplined and whipped them into shape. When I first heard them, they were eons superior to the dozens of other orchestras in Budapest, but their ensemble coordination hadn’t given them any personality of their own. After a decade, they might still lack that façade of spontaneity, but their responses to Mr. Fischer were electrifying.
That was shown in a splendid finale, the 1919 Firebird Suite. All the solos were spot on (I haven’t heard better French horn solos in a long time), and Mr. Fischer, who is never staid, positively leaped to the explosive chords of the “Infernal Dance”. (The audience appeared genuinely frightened, as they should have been.)
In Budapest, and with the New York Philharmonic appearances, Mr. Fischer is a dynamic picture on the podium. Last night, he could almost be called flamboyant, cueing in every instrument, shaking body and hands together. He was fun to watch, and most of the music was fun to hear.
Haydn’s “Oxford” Symphony (which I believe was never actually performed in Oxford, as it was “too difficult”) is one of Haydn’s merriest works. I have heard it played suavely or lightly. Mr. Fischer made the whole symphony seem like a wonderful practical joke.
Nobody should take that boring opening theme of the slow movement seriously. Obviously Haydn wrote it just so he could hammer home a mock Sturm und Drang outburst, repeated twice before returning to the tranquil little Elysian Fields. Mr. Fischer conducted that section like he did the Stravinsky dance, giving it a roaring tumult. But it was all play.
Just as he conducted the Adagio introduction of the symphony, as foreplay for the spirited body of the movement. Best of all was the Presto finale. This was the apotheosis of Haydn’s happy music, and Mr. Fischer let his fine orchestra sail through it without a hitch.
The only exception to the bedazzling music was Haydn’s Cello Concerto, the one work actually composed in Hungary. Miklós Perényi was the noted soloist, and he played with earnest and studied good sense. I have a feeling the soloist wrote the cadenzas in both the first and second movements, but was given no credit for them. But the original scoring was probably for a relatively simple string and wind ensemble, perhaps 16 strings at most. Mr. Fischer used the complete consort of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and the sound was a little heavy for such a light concerto.
That was not even a problem. Like the single stone in a perfect Japanese garden, the Cello Concerto’s shadows only accentuated the light, bright and even danceable concert conducted by the terpsichorean master of the podium.