Stravinsky formed the focus of Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Festival Hall visit, a pair of remarkable concerts exploring his output early and late. Both were structured around one of the ballets written for Diaghilev – Petrushka in the first concert, The Rite of Spring the next evening – preceded in each case by a work for soloist and orchestra (the Violin Concerto, the Capriccio for piano and orchestra) and a neoclassical piece from the 1930s or 40s (Jeu de Cartes, the Concerto in D for strings).
The Diaghilev ballets were both magnificently done, Petrushka in particular: this was one of the finest performances I’ve heard of it in London for some time. The central narrative, tragic yet ironic, was thrown into sharp relief by the cacophony of the Shrovetide fair, vivid in its whirling detail and verve. Petrushka’s shrieks of desire and despair combined pathos with grotesquerie, nowhere more so than at the close when his ghost confronts the Magician who has created and abused him. The Moor’s music had a heady sensuality, while the Ballerina’s flute and cornet solos were all flirtatious impertinence. The Rite of Spring was comparably powerful, edge-of-your-seat stuff, with great beauty amid the violence (the Mystic Circles of the Young Girls were simply ravishing) gradually accumulating tension as it went, rather than eruptive and seething from the outset.
The soloists in the concertante works differed sharply in their approaches. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, for whom theatricality is integral to performance, seemed not so much to play the Violin Concerto as to live it, acting and even dancing to the music, none of which detracted from her dazzling technique and expressive brilliance. Nicolas Namoradze, in the altogether cooler Capriccio, was ideally laconic and debonair, weighty yet exquisite, and exactingly precise in tone and touch.
Fischer, who conducts with boundless energy, did wonders with Jeu de Cartes, a comic yet austere work that can be tricky to get right. Larger than usual forces elevated sinewy neoclassicism to mock-baroque loftiness, while the ironic allusions to Rossini and parodic yet affectionate gestures towards the divertissements of imperial Russian ballet bristled with brilliance and wit. The Concerto for strings, effectively a concerto grosso, sounded gracious, svelte and consummately elegant. “This is an outstanding orchestra,” Kopatchinskaja declared before launching into two of Bartók’s Duets for Two Violins, as an encore, with István Kádár, one of the orchestral violinists. She is indeed right, and their playing was sensational throughout.