The Budapest Festival Orchestra has seen a bumpy year, with reported cuts in government funding exacting stress on this nearly three-decade-old ensemble led by Ivan Fischer. Still, Saturday night's concert at Carnegie Hall with pianist Andras Schiff should find the orchestra in strong artistic shape, if reviews of their recent performances are any guide. Here are three things to listen for:
1. Hungarian music played in a Hungarian Style
Critics have sometimes argued that the BFO's characteristic sound isn’t always smooth and silky but it has lots of Hungarian grit and vigor. Possibly. What stands out most is how Fischer favors unusual seating arrangements on stage as a way to highlight different parts of the orchestra. When the BFO played this program in Washington, DC on Wednesday night, he placed the winds and brass in the front row while the violins, standing, were on opposite sides. It remains to be seen how that will be experienced by the radio audience.
2. The push and pull between Andras Schiff and Ivan Fischer in the Bartok Piano Concerto No. 2
The pianist and conductor have known each other since they were kids growing up in Hungary and yet they are performers with strong and sometimes wildly different points of view. In an interview with Jeff Spurgeon, Schiff said he approaches the percussive and folk-tinged Bartok Concerto as he would a Bach Brandenburg Concerto. “It has all the elements of Bachian counterpoint,” he said. Fischer agreed, but nonetheless, these are two musicians with very distinct feelings about how Bartok’s music should sound.
3. Some revelations in Schubert’s Ninth Symphony
This is a tough piece to play well, with lots of complicated balances and tiny details that can get lost in substandard renditions. Unlike the case with so many of today's globe-trotting conductors, Fischer spends copious time rehearsing with his orchestra (which he founded in 1983 and with which he still has a close relationship). Schubert may not have the national connection enjoyed by Bartok (or Liszt) but this could provide the biggest revelation on the program.