EIF: Budapest Festival Orchestra / Fischer 3

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

On paper the third concert of the BFO’s residency at this year’s Edinburgh Festival looked a brief affair, with just half an hour of music before and after the interval. In practice it turned out to be a very complete evening, and that was down to more than the stage re-setting required for the different elements of the programme.

Most obviously that included bringing the concert grand to the front of the stage for Sir Andras Schiff to play the third and last of Bartok’s Piano Concertos. Designed by the dying composer as a legacy for his pianist wife Ditta to sustain her career in their US exile, in fact she quickly returned to Hungary after he succumbed to leukaemia and it was premiered by Gyorgy Sandor and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1946.

It is a very different beast from his rigorous Piano Concerto No2 and Schiff took a characteristic chamber music approach to its performance, engaging audibly and visibly with the superb wind principals of the orchestra in the opening movement and revelling in the referencing of Beethoven’s late string quartet in the Adagio religioso. The delightful transition into the work’s lively closing movement heralded a real vibrancy, poignantly suggesting that the composer was earnestly hoping not to die soon.

The personal content of that late work was framed by the practical music-making we heard on either side of it. The concert began with two performances of a selection of Romanian Folk Dances, Bartok’s orchestral transcription of 1915 preceded by a rougher version of the same material played by a folk trio drawn from the ranks of the orchestra, viola chords and slap bass accompanying the fiddle top line. Conductor Thomas Dausgaard essayed a similar lesson in a concert with the BBC SSO some years ago but it was a little po-faced next to this foot-stomping demonstration of Bartok’s way with traditional sources.

Alongside all the Budapesters on the platform, the local lasses of NYCOS National Girls Choir faced a challenge in performing Bartok’s Seven Choruses for Female Voices and Orchestra – one which, of course, director Christopher Bell’s young choristers rose to magnificently. As immaculately disciplined as always, with diction that non-Hungarian speakers could only marvel at, they performed entirely from memory and clearly beguiled Ivan Fischer, the conductor barely bothering with his instrumentalists to focus entirely on them. Beyond their musical excellence, the Fringe’s comedy awards panel should have been present to hear 75 young women being funny in Hungarian.

Bartok wrote his choruses to complement his colleague Zoltan Kodaly’s education programme, the music tuition method used by NYCOS today, so it was appropriate that the concert concluded with Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta. Like Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances they celebrate their traditional sources in the superbly-crafted arc of an orchestral suite, and once again those Budapest Festival Orchestra soloists were immaculate.

Nor was it quite the end of the night, as Fischer re-made his resources of human talent into a baroque band and choir of 20 plus voices. The link between the encore of Monteverdi and the singing we’d heard previously was in the lyrics rather than music, and their expression of female experience – and this was one the NYCOS girls will surely remember for many years to come.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Ivan Fischer by Marco Borggreve