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Brahms as I’ve never heard him

Last night's Proms concert with the Budapest Festival Orchestra was ravishing, but raised an uncomfortable question

I have a friend who travels to Budapest annually specially to hear the Budapest Festival Orchestra and conductor Iván Fischer. I always thought it was a little obsessional, but after last night’s BBC Proms concert, I understand why. What I listened to was possibly the finest orchestral playing I’ve ever heard.

They played two Brahms symphonies – nos. 3 and 4 – with extreme finesse and clarity. Rather than the massive sound wall and aggressive edges you sometimes get with Brahms, there was texture and detail, tenderness and charm, but plenty of power when required: the range and control of dynamics was astonishing. The string sections performed as one person, with players in the back of the section playing as if they were right at the centre, creating a real sense of intimacy and chamber music. And so the players are able, with just a micro-breath of Fischer’s elegant beat, to take time, without taking time, to create a gypsy swing in fast passages or gently tease a melody to its conclusion.

Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the folk characteristics of both symphonies brought out so strongly. But maybe it’s not surprising, as Fischer had fascinating things to say about setting Brahms in the context of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which he told Richard Morrison in The Times recently: ‘If you listen to the New Year’s day concert played by the Vienna Philharmonic you hear only one side of the empire: the beautiful, aristocratic music of the Viennese court. Yet the empire was full of Serbs, Croats, Jews, Bohemians, Hungarians and gypsies and they all had their different musical styles.’

It also raised a quandary. The orchestral discipline and collective musical understanding was extraordinary and is undoubtedly connected to the Hungarian music education tradition, which is based on the Kodály Method. The results are there for all to hear. But they must also rely on the fact that, judging by the orchestra listing, all the players are Hungarian, as well as the fact that Fischer seems to focus almost entirely on them rather than working with many other orchestras. There may be many reasons for why there aren’t any foreigners in the group – the language, the pay, the political climate – but there is something a little uncomfortable about such mono-culturalism in this day and age. And yet it keeps this wonderful performing tradition and unique sound alive, so does that justify the exclusivity? A tricky question at a time like this.

The Kodály Method is heavily based on singing, and maybe that’s why the orchestral members felt so comfortable standing up to perform their a cappella encore, Brahms’s Abendständchen. Can you imagine any UK orchestra being game for that? It was sublime: not a big choral sound, but pure and clear, impeccably in tune, and very moving. It’s a truism one often hears in masterclasses that the best way to learn how to play a piece is to sing it. It also seems that an orchestra that sings together plays together.

I couldn’t find the orchestra playing Brahms, but here is the first movement of Mahler no.1.

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