Review: An Orchestra Opens Its Mouth, and Sings

The Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer prove once again that they’re one of the world’s truly special ensembles.

Members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, led by Ivan Fischer, stand and sing a Dvorak chorus on Sunday at David Geffen Hall.
Members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, led by Ivan Fischer, stand and sing a Dvorak chorus on Sunday at David Geffen Hall.Credit...James Estrin/The New York Times
Anthony Tommasini
Budapest Festival Orchestra

Singing isn’t typically in the job description when you’re an orchestral musician. But the Budapest Festival Orchestra is not a typical orchestra, and on Sunday afternoon at David Geffen Hall, the players put down their instruments, stood up, and sang a short chorus by Dvorak — beautifully.

It spoke to what makes this ensemble so special. The conductor Ivan Fischer, who founded it in 1983 and is an outspoken voice for tolerance in Hungary, has always taken a comprehensive approach to making music. The main works on this program were Dvorak’s Violin Concerto and his Eighth Symphony.

But to introduce elements of folk song and dance that run through Dvorak’s major scores, Mr. Fischer began with three short pieces: a lyrically glowing Legend, a rousing Slavonic Dance and that wistful choral piece, “Misto Klekani” (“Evening’s Blessing”).

All musicians learn to sight-sing, at least as students. But the Budapest players still exercise this skill. Maybe that explains why their playing in the Eighth Symphony sang out with such fullness and breadth, and why chordal passages had such strong hints of a church choir.

Renaud Capuçon was a riveting soloist in Dvorak’s Violin Concerto. The violin essentially leads the orchestra through the rhapsodic first movement, playing restless lines that shift from searching lyricism to impetuous brilliance. Mr. Capuçon and the orchestra were inspired in the Finale, a dancing, sometimes impish movement full of sudden, startling dark bursts. After intermission, the performance of the Eighth Symphony was alive with color, fanciful flights, elegiac sadness and, in the rousing finale, almost frenzied abandon.

On Monday evening, the orchestra was back with a Mahler program that opened with the “Kindertotenlieder.” The soloist was Gerhild Romberger, making her New York debut; she proved a true contralto, with a warm, deep, russet-tone voice. For these aching songs, Mahler often uses the orchestra almost like a chamber ensemble, and the intimacy of the playing here matched Ms. Romberger’s elegantly restrained singing.

The teeming Fifth Symphony, lasting nearly 80 minutes, presents formidable challenges, especially the need to reconcile the disparate elements of music that constantly shifts moods, even within movements. Mr. Fischer led the most convincing account I’ve heard in many years of this elusive work.

The first movement, an episodic funeral march, moved with a weighty tread, over which a somber melodic line kept trying to offer solace. Mahler indicates that the stormy second movement should be performed with “greatest vehemence,” and this performance delivered.

For the sprawling Scherzo, Mr. Fischer had the first horn (Zoltan Szoke) seated next to the podium to highlight crucial solo passages, played vibrantly here. In the sublime Adagietto, the string sound was glowing and plush; the phrasing urgent yet pliant. Right through the Rondo-Finale, the performance danced on the divide between rustic romp and wild-eyed abandon.

It truly sang. No surprise from an orchestra that makes such a beautiful chorus, too.

Budapest Festival Orchestra

Performed on Sunday and Monday at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center.