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Magyar Magic

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
02/10/2008 -  
Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks – First Waltz Sequence from "Der Rosenkavalier"
Béla Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle, Opus 11

Ildikó Komlósi (mezzo-soprano), László Polgár (bass)
Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (conductor)

When I was working in Budapest a decade ago, both the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer were officially Bad Names. The Communist government had collapsed, but the superfluity of official orchestras was enormous. Every union, factory and corporation had its own orchestra, they all played incessant Liszt, they were all dismal, but they were all officially supported by State or corporation money.

Iván Fischer would have none of that. In 1983, he had taken the best players of all these orchestras, told them they would be rehearsing far more than before, that he would audition them every year, and that he would take them out of the 30-watt energy of Budapest and onto the international scene.

Not only did he accomplish this better than any dreams could imagine, but Fisher himself has become one of the most sought-after conductors in the world. His repertory is wide, but his performances of music from the Austro-Hungarian Empire—Strauss, Mahler, Kodály and of course Béla Bartók, are legendary.

Fischer’s Till Eulenspiegel was played just 24 hours after the Baltimore Symphony in Carnegie Hall, but they were hardly similar. Maestro Alsop led her ensemble with sharp stops and starts and plenty of room for her first-chair solos. Maestro Fischer was not so interested in showing off his orchestra. He played this with jaunty good humor, he allowed the pretty tunes to sing with prosaic sweetness, and subtly lead them into the grand climaxes.

In the suite from Rosenkavalier, Fischer became truly idiosyncratic. Rather than leading with the tunes, he frequently allowed the secondary instruments to lead the way.

Yes, it was lyrical; it swung with all the dances. But when one was expecting the strings to play a waltz and instead the trumpet accompaniment became the lead, or a little oboe descant took equal part with the violins, it somehow broadened and gave a unique color to this most colorful work.

Bartók’s only opera, though, made this afternoon a thing of eternal memory.
Bluebeard can be overwhelming theatre, whether with holographs and special effects or (as in Budapest) with simple scrim curtains and lights for the frightening doors. But in the spoken prologue (rarely given outside Hungary), we learned that this is a stage of the mind. That we can imagine the blood and velvet forests and lake of tears as well as see it.

Thus, while one sometimes missed the visual imagination, this was no less an impressive version. The Budapest Festival Orchestra played those strange Magyar harmonies, the hiccupping tempos, and most of all, the shimmering tone-paintings. When the trumpets and horns signaled the Armory Room or the woodwinds sighed the Lake of Tears, or the Kingdom came forth in a huge set of triads in C Major played by the whole orchestra and organ, one could well picture the opera.

Naturally, Bluebeard is rarely sung in its original Hungarian (Christa Ludwig, who once made a recording of it, told me that Sir George Solti said her Magyar sounded like Chinese.) But with two excellent Hungarian singers (the translation was shown on a screen), the opera took on the complex sounds and accents of the original.

László Polgár, all in black, with shining white hair, had all the haunted voice, and the right combination of chanting and singing which gave Bluebeard the sad human touch. As Judith, Ildikó Komlósi had a wonderful mezzo voice which never faltered, which could have done Bellini as well as Bartók. The character of Judith changes from shyness to false bravery to horror to resignation, and while this may have been missed, Ms. Komlósi had such a massively beautiful voice that the concert version never suffered.

This was indeed a rare afternoon. The orchestra has worked strenuously to build such wonderful color, and Maestro Fischer has the genius, like a creative Bluebeard, to have led them through mysterious rooms into a luscious tonal garden.

Harry Rolnick



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