Ivan Fischer is back in town. The Hungarian conductor, familiar to Washington audiences from his many years as a guest and principal conductor with the National Symphony Orchestra, is on a North American tour with his main band, the Budapest Festival Orchestra. There was no doubt after his superb performance Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center that audiences here have every reason to miss him.
As members of the orchestra had done Tuesday night in an equally fine concert of chamber music at the Library of Congress, the Hungarians were here to celebrate Bela Bartok, born 130 years ago. Fischer paired selections from the “Hungarian Peasant Songs” and the Second Piano Concerto with the immense, melodically rich Ninth Symphony of Schubert.
It is rare to hear an orchestra sound so unified, so energized and so polished. All sections contributed solidly and, more important, all merged cohesively, even with the unusual seating arrangement; in the first half, winds and brass were in the front row and the violins, standing, were on opposite sides. The strings gave a lush opening to the “Ballad” from the “Hungarian Peasant Songs,” and in the short series of “Peasant Dances” that followed, the ensemble moved as one in spontaneous, even mercurial, fluctuations of tempo.
In the piano concerto, Fischer’s compatriot Andras Schiff was authoritative and slightly irascible in the brutally difficult solo part, his occasionally unpredictable hesitations and accelerations unsettling the orchestra. But a mechanical regularity is not to be desired here, even in the rhythm-focused action of the first movement, and in any case Schiff had more than enough sparkle and toughness for the work. It was the second movement that most impressed, however, with a whispered string sound like a gentle night breeze providing a background to Schiff’s lyrical serenade of carefully parsed thoughts at the piano. In the madcap presto section and the playful final movement, there was plenty of barbaric bite from both soloist and orchestra.
Responding to generous ovations, Schiff offered Schubert’s F Minor Impromptu, Op. 142, No. 4, as an encore, spiced up with a sort of Hungarian flavor.
The brass returned to the back rows for the Schubert symphony, perhaps partly to give the fine opening horn solo a more distant sound. Fischer shaped the work exquisitely, giving the fast movements vigor and spirit but also emphasizing soft dynamics. The tempo choices were strong, with a good sense of motion in the second movement; the somewhat slow third movement was made up for in the finale, which was a blur of notes hastening toward an exultant conclusion. Two short pieces, one by Schubert and the other by Bartok, served as encores.
Downey is a freelance writer.