Knowing that an orchestra has been voted in the top ten best in the world certainly raises expectations, and last week's Budapest Festival Orchestra concert was like a dream come true.
Formed 30 years ago by Iván Fischer, who has remained music director ever since, it’s a remarkable ensemble. With strings spread from left to right (double basses high up in the centre at the back) and superb wind and brass choirs, there is an all-enveloping richness to the sound, and a clarity, passion and precision to the playing that takes one’s breath away.
Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra was stunning, its rhythms and textures vibrantly detailed with a wonderful spatial identity and timbre and the musical lurches from one idea to another delivered with an almost insouciant sleight of hand – the Shostakovich-inspired raspberries in the ‘Intermezzo interrotto’ were especially delicious, as were the squeals of delight of the whirlwind Finale. After such a signature Hungarian work (albeit one composed for American audiences) Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 offered something totally different, and it was clear from the songlike grace of the opening that it would be an intensely lyrical interpretation.
So it was, although Fischer at times pushed the expressive envelope a little too far. Even though the first-movement climaxed at an unexpected level of high drama, and the horn fanfare opening of the Andante seemed a strident call to arms, it was still a persuasively argued reading. The scherzo was vigorously crisp, and the finale correctly observed both in structure and mood where even the surging violins seemed strangely apposite.