On February 8, 2016, the Budapest Festival Orchestra under the baton of founder (1983) and musical director Ivan Fischer with guest pianist Richard Goode presented an all-Beethoven concert as part of the 86th season of the “Symphony Center Presents” series. The first half of the program was lovely indeed, but the second half, “Beethoven’s Fifth” almost blew the roof off Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, Chicago. This is one of the “Top 10” orchestras in the world and “one of the major success stories of the international music scene”. The BFO is known for having developed a system that encourages its artists/musicians to blend into a homogenous orchestral sound. Indeed, conductor and multi-instrumentalist Maestro Fischer seemed to meld his entire person with the orchestra when he conducted the “Fifth” sans score.
First on the program was “Symphony No. 1 in C Major”, Op. 21, first published in 1801, said to be a result of Beethoven’s “ bold musical experimentation and advancement”. It is the briefest of the composer’s great 9 symphonies, and was played here with a freshness and lightness of touch. The brisk and spirited opening Allegro contrasted nicely with the detailed Andante; the whole was played with grace and verve. There was a strong control of articulation in this performance, a nice sense of proportion between tempos.
Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major”, Op. 19, (revised in 1792 and again in 1795, from a much-earlier version,) was presented by the BFO featuring Richard Goode. Goode, a renowned American classical pianist, a 1983 Grammy award winner for Best Chamber Music Performance, is especially well known for his fine interpretations of Mozart and Beethoven. Indeed, though this concerto has been described as similar in style to those of Mozart, it contains a distinct “sense of drama and contrast that we see in many of Beethoven’s later works”. This is a great classical work, (despite the often mentioned fact that Beethoven himself once remarked it was “not one of his best”) which Goode rendered with astounding finesse and filled with life and color. It begins playfully, continues serenely, develops into a difficult cadenza, and ends in a forceful rondo.
After the intermission, the BFO launched into the instantly recognizable and immediately thrilling notes of “Symphony No. 5 in C Minor”, Op. 67, 1808, known as “The Victory Symphony”, one of the most well-known and oft-played pieces of music in the Orchestral canon. Despite the fact that the BFO must have performed this famous and popular work many times before, it sounded wholly fresh, wholly new. The unforgettable opening was forceful and bold, at once serious and inspiring. During the second movement, the Andante con moto, it seemed as though a special place of peace and calm tinged with sorrow was evoked- a surpassingly beautiful and thrilling performance in toto. There was a splendid control here by Fischer of the rhythm, from the opening bars through the purposeful and ultra-dynamic conclusion.
Music critic E.T.A. Hoffmann, who incidentally wrote the story upon which the Nutcracker was based (“The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”), described the music after its premiere performance far better than this reviewer could hope to do,
“Radiant beams shoot through this region’s deep night, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy everything within us except the pain of endless longing- a longing in which every pleasure that rose up in jubilant tones sinks and succumbs, and only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with full-voiced harmonies of all the passions, we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits”.
After the wonderful climax, which ascends up and up, the audience as one arose to their feet calling “Fischer, Bravo! Budapest, Bravo!” calling on and on while the musicians and conductor took their graceful bows.
Photos of The Budapest Festival Orchestra by Ian Douglass
For information and tickets to all the great performances at Symphony Center, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and in all its special and side series, go to the CSO website