Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer / Stephen Hough - Royal Festival Hall, 16 January 2011
Yes, it's the Royal Festival Hall, and yes, it's a tree. Sneaked on during the interval, it was the first of the surprises Iván Fischer had in store for Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. The second was to scatter the woodwinds individually amongst the string section as if they were too naughty to sit together. In a more acoustically refined venue, this might have created unique spatial effects; in the Royal Festival Hall it was business as muddy usual.
Vegetation aside, Fischer's real achievement was to cram the old warhorse with a wealth of vivid pictorial detail without ever losing sight of the landscape. Flutes chirruped, clarinets hooted, violins buzzed like angry flies. You could almost smell the flowers. And there was joy in every note - these players clearly share Fischer's vision.
The evening began with Haydn's Symphony No.92. 92! But Haydn could still come up with a few novelties - in this case a minuet punctuated by sudden pauses. Fischer calibrated them perfectly, but the effect was ruined by a sizeable section of the audience who used the opportunity of a moment's silence to cough their guts up. It was even worse between movements. Anyone who couldn't summon up an intrusive cough or sneeze openly chatted, as if we'd hit the ad break. I've never heard anything quite like it. I can only assume that the sizeable delegation there to celebrate the Hungarian Presidency of the EU (rather than listen to the music) had something to do with it.
One of the strengths of Liszt's first piano concerto in the circumstances was simply that it's loud enough to drown out that sort of crap. The ineffably brilliant Stephen Hough never let its pyrotechnics degenerate into mere flash. His secret, a lyrical touch combined with a robust muscularity that allows him to build tension slowly and release it in a blinding flash. His path to the colossal finale was crafted with organic rapport with Fischer's orchestra. It was the sort of playing Liszt needs and all too rarely gets.
We got three finales - a brief one from Hough that I didn't recognise, and at the very end, a crowd-pleasing clapalong Strauss Polka and one of Brahms's Hungarian Dances - so rarely heard outside the purgatory of encoreland yet surely deserving of greater exposure.