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Forces Magyars

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
04/20/2023 -  & April 21, 22, 2023
Ernő Dohnányi: Szimfónikus percek, Op. 36
Béla Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3, BB 127
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C Major, “Jupiter”, K. 551

Sir András Schiff (Pianist)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Iván Fischer (Conductor)

I. Fischer/Sir A. Schiff (© Akos Stiller/Birgitta Kowsky)

Folk melodies are the embodiment of an artistic perfection of the highest order; in fact, they are models of the way in which a musical idea can be expressed with utmost perfection in terms of brevity of form and simplicity of means.
Béla Bartók

A wise man’s farewell.
Sir András Schiff on Béla Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto

Forgiving the pun, one might call last night’s concert in Lincoln Center a Force Magyar. Two of the world’s great musicians, both raised and educated in Budapest, performing two great Hungarian composers. And achieving predicably galvanizing results.

Not that the two Hungarian composers were in the same league. Ernő Dohnányi changed his name to Ernst von Dohnányi not because of any political affinity for Germany. But because–like the early Antonín Dvorák–he felt that German Romantic music was his métier, and accepted the term “conservative” with pride.

There were two exceptions. Dohnányi’s Nursery Tune Variations showed, in its mock‑opening, a sense of heavy but effective humor. Last night, his compatriot Iván Fischer led the New York Philharmonic through 15 Symphonic Minutes (a typically inconsequential title) of hustling folk‑inspired music.

“Folk” was incidental to a work which seemed more Gallic than Hungarian. This hardly belittled the five movements, each with emphasis on different consorts of the Phil Orchestra. Maestro Fischer took this very ignored music, with its brassy windy sections, clarinet solos, dreamy trumpets, a touching near‑Magyar theme and variations and–of course!–a Presto finale. Yes Brahms and Dvorák were more naturally akin to Central European dance music. But Iván Fischer took the tunes with his usual elan.

Still, one could not compare Dohnányi’s minor jest with the transcendental wonders of Sir András Schiff playing Béla Bartók’s supernaturally inspired Third Piano Concerto. Whatever the physical condition of the composer when he wrote it (he was suffering the last critical pains of leukemia), this is a work which begins in prayerful stolidity and continues with keyboard blizzards, with orchestral fireworks, with drums appearing out of some kind of hell, and a slow movement that deserves so well the title Adagio religioso.

András Schiff is not known for a particularly grandiose sound, but his modest demeanor hides a cataclysm of notes when called for. And this Third Concerto demanded superpowers. All supplied by pianist and conductor.

A so‑called Bartók “specialist” could whip the hell out of this work. Mr. Schiff not only whipped the keyboard into shape, but he provided another dimension. Playing the Baroque-style chorale of the second movement or the fugue in the finale, Mr. Schiff proved that he is one of those singular geniuses not only performing, but breathing the notes reflecting the links of the composer. More specifically, as he was playing the fugue, I was reminded of a quote I heard long ago from Bartók: “Some artists may be atheists. But every artist worships Bach.”

The final work last night was from Mozart, who probably never played in Budapest, but whose love for Central Europe–notably his love for Prague–was always part of his greatest last works. Iván Fischer led the New York Phil not with the greatness of a conductor, but the personal character of the man himself.

This was a Jupiter filled with drums and trumpets, martial and delicate in turns. As for the quintuple-themes finale, Mr. Fischer never had to push the New York Philharmonic players. They and their conductor followed the counterpoint to its blazing conclusion.

A word on Iván Fischer’s conducting style. Many a conductor of his experience may evolve from a youthful high‑charging into a style of shortcuts and signals. When I heard Mr. Fischer weekly with his Budapest Festival Orchestra, he had that dynamic mien. Last night, I realized that he never ever lets down his guard. From his dance‑like opening work to a virtual pirouette at the end, he has shown his greatness past...and present...and obviously in his bounding boundless future.

Harry Rolnick



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