Ivan Fischer and his Budapest band returned to the Barbican to continue their Bartok and Beethoven series where it left off in June, juxtaposing the latter's piano concertos with Bartok's major orchestral output.
Once again their accomplice was the pianist Richard Goode, who joined them to give Beethoven's fourth Piano Concerto sensitivity, flair and no little drama. Goode may do a passable imitation of a goldfish when he's playing, but there's no doubting his total involvement in the music - displaying extreme dexterity and shaping every phrase with great care, yet unafraid to let loose at times, grunting and stamping his foot as he does so. His handling of the many florid upper register sequences that Beethoven employs was first class, and his interaction with the orchestra conveyed nothing but a mutual enjoyment of their music making. Fischer made much of the second movement's baroque drama, the strings leaping out of the blocks with double dotted rhythm, quelled only by Goode's almost timeless responses.
As if this wasn't enough we had totally authentic Bartok to enjoy. First the Hungarian Sketches, five orchestrations that began life as short piano pieces, and which charmed and amused as an opener. The Bear Dance was enormous fun, while A Bit Drunk stumbled drastically like a weeble, threatening to fall but somehow making it home.
The key work however was the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, in a daring move preceded by Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, the two linked almost without a break. While the Beethoven clearly works better in quartet form rather than Felix Weingartner's arrangement for string orchestra there was no lack of tension in this extraordinary, febrile piece, the string players divided in two, in anticipation of the Bartok.
With percussion and piano swiftly added, they went on to give an extraordinary performance of Bartok's astonishingly radical work. Fischer took the opening fugue at a quick pace but this did not diminish its disquieting effect. The scherzo was a tour de force as ever, the interaction between the two string orchestras immaculately controlled by Fischer as he danced around on the podium. Likewise the rollicking Bulgarian dance with which the work ends was exciting in its folksy syncopations, a joyous conclusion. And yet the slow movement was the most memorable for its eerie violin solo from leader Violetta Eckhardt, chilling to the bone. No wonder it found use in The Shining!
There was so much to take from this concert, and it was refreshing to see the enjoyment evident on the players' faces. Ivan Fischer demonstrated once again what a good conductor he is, and his orchestra succeeded in putting many of the big league to shame.