music

There’s something about Budapest

Finally, an orchestra that doesn't have that homogeneous 'international' sound

JAIME J. WEINMAN January 30 2006
music

There’s something about Budapest

Finally, an orchestra that doesn't have that homogeneous 'international' sound

JAIME J. WEINMAN January 30 2006

There’s something about Budapest

Finally, an orchestra that doesn't have that homogeneous 'international' sound

music

BY JAIME J. WEINMAN • Music lovers often complain that all orchestras sound alike these days. Orchestral musicians are proficient but lack the national and regional characteristics that used to define the way musicians played; does today’s New York Philharmonic really sound that different from the Berlin Philharmonic? But some orchestras are reviving the ideal of a truly distinctive style. One of these is the Budapest Festival Orchestra, under conductor Iván Fischer, which capped a North American tour with a recent concert in Toronto.

Fischer co-founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra in 1983. While Hungary has produced many of the best-known conductors in the world—including George Szell, Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti—its orchestras did not have much of an international reputation. Fischer’s orchestra has changed that; it was recently described by a London publication as “one of the world’s top five orchestras,” and its recordings have won various international awards.

Whereas most orchestras just sound like proficient groups of musicians, regardless of nationality, there seems to be something particularly Hungarian about the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s sound and style. Richard Morrison, music critic for the London Times, summed it up when he wrote: “Twenty years ago, one might have attributed this volatility and coiled-spring intensity to their collective youthfulness. But now there is no other explanation. They are Hungarians.”

Fischer thinks there is something to the idea that the Budapest Festival Orchestra is a uniquely Hungarian group. The intensity of its playing is informed by the Hungarian musical temperament, which he describes as “emotionally highly charged. Certain other national traditions reach for a certain moderate way of expression, suppressing the ex-

treme feeling. Hungarians don’t know how to suppress their extreme feelings. They don’t have that mechanism.”

To create a new Hungarian orchestra that meets international standards, Fischer implemented a combination of old-style playing and phrasing with new-style management techniques. He picked the best young players from other Hungarian orchestras, and created personnel flexibility by giving players two-year contracts, shorter than usual for orchestral musicians. This, Fischer says, “was an idealistic decision of the founding members, in order to maintain the high quality and

'Hungarians don't know how to suppress their extreme feelings. They don't have that mechanism.'

idealism of the orchestra. They know that all their life they have to be on the edge of their seat and give a little extra, which is usually not demandable under normal circumstances.” The Budapest Festival Orchestra has been described as reminiscent of the great central European orchestras of the mid-20th century. For one thing, it sounds different from most modern orchestras. The strings are less sweet-toned than we expect from big Western orchestras, and with relatively restrained vibrato. Violin solos have a raw energy suggestive of gypsy fiddles. The brass is gruff and dark-toned; the woodwinds have a biting,

almost nasal quality that cuts easily through the rest of the orchestra. And like the great Hungarian conductor George Szell, Fischer tries to make lush 19th-century music sound as transparent and precise as chamber music.

But Fischer says that the sound of an orchestra’s instruments is not the most important factor in creating a distinctive orchestra. “I consider the musicianship far more important than the sound. If the musicianship is on a high level, that affects the sound, because people listen to each other, people follow each other, give room or time to each other to play different phrases. And ultimately it affects the sound, because it creates a sound for each musical phrase.”

Though the orchestra understandably performs a lot of Hungarian music—including recordings of the complete orchestral music of Bartók—it is also making a name for itself in the German and Slavic repertoire. It has recently recorded symphonies by Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Mahler, and its program at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto consisted of Wagner’s overture to Die Meistersinger, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony.

Fischer plans to further expand the BFO’s repertoire, but in everything the orchestra performs, he intends to keep the sense of phrasing and teamwork that creates the impression of unique sound. “If people play the notes and not the phrase,” he says, “that’s when an orchestra is in trouble.” M