sat 20/07/2024

Prom 55, Lisztes, Lendvai, Lendvay, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Fischer review - unity and strength | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 55, Lisztes, Lendvai, Lendvay, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Fischer review - unity and strength

Prom 55, Lisztes, Lendvai, Lendvay, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Fischer review - unity and strength

Gypsy fiddlers, fizzing cimbalom and celestial Brahms

Cimbalomist Jenö Lisztes joins Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra in their second PromAll images by BBC/Chris Christodoulou

There seems no limit to the sheer creativity that fizzes from Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra. For their second night at the Proms, packed out this time, the theme was the meeting of classical and Gypsy musical traditions.

And though Fischer, talking to the audience from the podium, kindly explained that the Gypsy tradition is distinct from both Hungarian folk music and classical conservatoires, what emerged was a sense that they have far more in common than might be admitted.

Nothing asserts “Hungarian Gypsy music” quite strongly as a cimbalom centre stage. In case you haven’t met one before, it’s a large zither on legs, its elaborate system of strings played with a pair of beaters, uttering a sound with an acidic, metallic sparkle to it. A great performance on one can dazzle the bejesus out of you. 

Jenö Lisztes, one of today’s most famous exponents, often to be found in Roby Lakatos’s ensemble, took centre stage for an eye and ear-popping improvisation before serving as soloist for Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.1, his extra cadenzas warming up the audience to a point at which the notion of hearing an actual Brahms symphony later on began to seem redundant. He then melded into the orchestra throughout the first half, the sound adding a soft fizz and glitter to the textural background, however Brahms and Liszt the proceedings. Gipsy violinists with the BFO Next we met the Gypsy violinist soloists: József Csócsi Lendvai, introduced by Fischer as an “authentic primás” of a traditional Gypsy orchestra, and his son, József Lendvay junior (pictured above) – a classical competition winner with a Strad. Lendvai senior, with solo spots for the Brahms Hungarian Dance No.1 (“we will try to join in” remarked Fischer) and the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No.3, is the real deal indeed: his sound has a soft, wild, rhapsodic lilt and seductive spontaneity that encapsulates accumulated generations of tradition. You’d be lucky to find the style on show in its traditional Hungarian restaurant settings these days; keeping it alive in the era of piped music and rap is another good reason - as if one were needed - for bringing it to the Proms. 

Lendvay junior is a chip off the old block, but also has to his name a cavalcade of great classical teachers, competition first prizes, Hungarian state honours and, not least, a Strad. His performance of Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen mingled the two styles ideally, the sound focused and projected, the tone sweet and sure, the technical tricks of mingled left-hand pizzicato and bowed staccato tossed out so nonchalantly that it drew a laugh. Father and son rarely perform together, inhabiting different musical universes: but tonight a special arrangement of Brahms’s soulful Hungarian Dance No.11 united them at last.

You can just imagine the youthful Brahms and his star violinist friend Joseph Joachim soaking up Gypsy style in central European cafés. Brahms was so enchanted that he borrowed the tunes for his Hungarian Dances, little imagining that some themes were written by actual composers; he landed himself with a plagiarism charge. The dances were nevertheless one of his first big successes. The Symphony No.1, on the other hand, only reached the public many years later, the long shadow of Beethoven having proved understandably intimidating. Brahms made the first sketches in about 1855, but the premiere did not take place until 1876. It was, of course, declared Beethoven’s Tenth almost the minute it was heard. It may now be a Proms standard, but hearing it in this concert’s context added something unique to the experience. Ivan Fischer and the BFO at the PromsOne of Fischer’s many creative slants is a rare sense of the orchestra’s theatricality. His arrangement of the stage was masterful: double basses along the back at the top (pictured above), first and second violin sections opposite on another, horn choir to the left, trumpet, trombones and timpani to the right. Thus the finale’s opening - after the first half’s Gypsy music, sounding like a fantastical improvisation - acquired extra dimensions, as you could both see and hear the accelerating pizzicatos and the exchange of rapid notes between the two violin sections, and experience the chorale theme that responds to the horn melody (“Hoch auf’m Berg, tief im Tal, grüß ich dich viel tausend mal!” - the alphorn theme Brahms sent on a postcard to Clara Schumann) as an effect almost from the other side of a valley.

Fischer’s fluid tempi, his sense of overarching structure and emotional progression in combination with the transparency of textures, the flexible, plangent phrasing of the expert woodwind, and the unity of ensemble in this most homogenous of orchestras, made every note of this performance riveting. The symphony shone out in long-breathed, rich yet light-filled tone, a journey from the anguished opening to the great life-affirming finale by way of enormous, elemental energy.

These days no BFO concert is quite complete without a sung encore. This time it was the Brahms Hungarian Dance No.4, the orchestra singing the original Hungarian folksong, alternating with the instrumental version. A Hungarian song taken up by a Gypsy band and thence grabbed for classical transformation by Brahms: it’s not presented as a political point, and neither is the mix of the Jewish Hungarian conductor, Roma soloists and an almost-all-Hungarian orchestra, hugging each other. But in the context of present-day Hungary it makes one in any case – gloriously so. There’s more that unites us than divides us: music most of all.


The most entertaining Prom so far this season. Marvellous concert.

Wholeheartedly agree with your review. It was a most wonderful evening, full of musical and emotional highs.

Where can I buy this on cd?

Is it possible to buy a DVD of this performance? This concert is too good to be hidden.

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