When a touring ensemble brings a program as conservative as the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Celebrity Series performance on Sunday, it registers ironically as an audacious move. Music Director and founder Iván Fischer and his ensemble picked not one, not two, but three chestnuts in a row, and with the reams of new music churning in Boston’s smaller venues and the curiosities that rub shoulders with standards in the big ones, it’s reasonable to be skeptical. If you’re going to play Beethoven Five again, then it better be different or it better be good or better or both. Luckily the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s show on Sunday at Symphony Hall, offered the better in spades with a bit of the merely good thrown in for good measure.
Fischer, chose Beethoven’s First Symphony to open and his Fifth to close; he filled the sandwich with more Beethoven—the Fourth Piano Concerto. Even his soloist seemed a safe choice. Richard Goode is a bastion of traditional Beethoven performance. Fischer quickly established, however, whose Beethoven this was and why his recordings with the Budapest on Nonesuch harvest awards and match the great contemporary ensembles on countless critical lists. Fischer’s Beethoven is historically informed but not historically limited. His string section privileges crisp articulation, springy rhythms, and nuanced dynamics over the lush textures of received 20th-century Beethoven practice. He splits the first and second violins on opposing sides of the podium—an astute historical practice that highlights the opposition between these parts but rarely makes it to today’s concert stages. And he sets the timpani player at the front of the ensemble, snugly positioned in the semicircle of principal string players and performing on small drums with what sounded to these ears like skin drum heads and hard mallets.
But Fischer breaks from historical practice with his tempi. He feels no obligation to hustle or to stick doggedly to a tempo once he’s chosen it. What he loses in bounce, he gains back in interpretive subtlety and moments of stunning ensemble. On Sunday, the strings were especially sensitive to one another, playing like chamber musicians particularly in exposed spots like the return in the B section of the third movement trio of the First Symphony and the delicate intro to its blustery final movement. Even if Fischer occasionally risked ensemble clarity for the sake of expression, he made sure to take care of the most memorable spots—beginnings and endings—many of which were breathtaking. The ensuing dividends, especially at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony, registered with elemental force.
The Budapest players also proved sensitive partners in the concerto, and Richard Goode displayed not only why so many consider his Beethoven an industry standard but also what makes this a fruitful and logical partnership. Goode’s sound is by turns lush and delicate, stormy and controlled. He hears rubato in the same manner as Fischer, and they matched in matters of dynamics and phrasing, especially in the delicate connective tissue between sections and phrases. Goode found the most profundity when soft, and the dynamic contrast in the introduction to the finale (especially that passing tone, one of Beethoven’s best) was overshadowed only by Goode’s glorious slow movement, one of the highlights of the concert. The rustic and rambunctious start to the finale proper drove the rhythm from this moment to the close.
All of the clarity and subtlety of the First Symphony remained after intermission for the Fifth, with the fitting additional shade of darkness and drama. Principal horn, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and flute (Zoltán Szőke, Nóra Salvi, Ákos Ács, Andrea Bressan, and Erika Sebők respectively), contributed extraordinary solo turns. Time stopped as it can only do in great Beethoven performances during the slow movement. The melody in the cellos and violas flowed warm, rich, and flawless; I’d never before heard it so beautiful. As soon as the brass burst forth to announce the glorious finale, dozens of local NEC students poured out of the wings to join the ensemble. The Budapest has been partnering with local students on each stop of its tour to enrich the sound of the orchestra and mentor young musicians. Theirs were among the loudest ovations at the end of a performance that deserved every one it received. May every all-Beethoven program be as exciting and convincing as this one.
Matthew Heck is a musicology doctoral student at Brandeis.