Bartok: Hungarian Peasant Songs
Bartok: Piano Concerto No. 2
Schubert: Impromptu in E-flat major, Op. 90, No. 2
Schubert: Hungarian Melody
Andras Schiff, piano
Schubert: Symphony No. 9
Bartok: The Swineherd's Dance from 'Hungarian Pictures'
Even in an age that glorifies multitasking, Iván Fischer is pretty impressive. Even in his student days, he wasn't just a one-track guy. He studied piano, violin, cello and conducting.
Conductor Ivan Fischer and pianist Andras Schiff discuss the music with WQXR's Jeff Spurgeon
Now he seems to have a musical solar system orbiting around him. His principal concern is leading the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Fischer founded the orchestra nearly 30 years ago, and it's just one of the talented Hungarian's many musical pursuits.
In addition to his other positions — leader of the Konzerthaus Orchestra in Berlin, principal artist with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment — there are dozens of guest conducting gigs with orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Then there are the festivals Fischer has founded, including the Budapest Mahlerfest (he also created the Budapest Mahler Society) and a separate summer baroque festival (he honed his early music chops as assistant to Nicholas Harnoncourt). And there's Fischer the composer, and Fischer the stage director. At this year's Mostly Mozart Festival in New York, he conducted and directed performances of Don Giovanni to considerable acclaim.
Fischer's calendar must be some kind of meticulously structured spreadsheet, but that rigidity doesn't carry over into his music making. In a review of his Beethoven performances last year in New York, Times critic James Oestreich described Fischer as "a dynamic conductor who manages to infuse a seeming spontaneity even into a performance that was obviously rehearsed to within an inch of its life."
That spontaneity was on display again last night, as Fischer and the orchestra made a stop at Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center to play the very same program slated for the Carnegie Hall webcast — a pairing of Schubert's ambitious Symphony No. 9 with Bartok's impetuous Piano Concerto No. 2. To these ears, it was near symphonic perfection — instinctive, fresh performances coupled with immaculately tweaked orchestral tone.
That's largely due to Fischer's keen sense of how sound projects from the stage, and to that end he played musical chairs with the standard symphonic seating arrangement. Instead of violins and cellos arrayed directly in front of him, he placed winds and brass. The double basses, usually shunted far off to one side, were perched on double-high risers centrally located in the back — all the better to hear the agitated grumblings that open Schubert's scherzo movement.
There is also in this program the convivial spirit of a reunion, with Fischer welcoming his old friend András Schiff as the soloist for the Bartok. Both musicians were born in Budapest, attended school together and recorded all three of Bartok's piano concertos with the Budapest Festival Orchestra in their hometown 15 years ago.