Beethoven's Pastoral

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The Budapest Festival Orchestra was joined by an unexpected guest on stage to perform Beethoven, writes Rebecca Franks

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Beethoven loved nature. And, in turn, it offered him more than a fair amount of inspiration. The Pastoral Symphony, after all, is one of his best-loved works. But that still doesn’t quite explain why, at a recent Royal Festival Hall concert, Iván Fischer decided to conduct that piece with a tree placed in the middle of the orchestra. A thin sapling, it stood proud amid the Budapest Festival players after appearing on stage in the interval. The woodwind were scattered all over the place as well – a bassoonist next to a cellist, an oboe amid the second violins. It added a certain carefree spirit to the occasion, a liveliness to the sound. And spot the instrument, it turns out, is rather a fun game.

Fresh from recording both Beethoven’s Sixth and Fourth Symphonies for Channel Classics, Fischer and his orchestra gave a wonderfully spirited account of the Pastoral. Performed with an enjoyable sense of unhurried leisure, there was plenty of time for all the details – the onomatopoeic bird calls in the woodwind, the surprising trills of the violins, the merry peasants getting into the party spirit. The dark thunderstorm, its fury breaking from the back right of the orchestra where the timpani and trumpets were placed, soon melted away in the face of an unequivocally sunny, and satisfied, ending.

Gentle good humour was a theme for the concert, which opened with Haydn’s Symphony No. 92 in G ‘Oxford’. Joy and refinement were the watchwords of the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s performance, paving the way for the rather more flamboyant Liszt Concerto to follow. 

Programmed as a nod to both the Hungarian-born composer’s bicentenary year and the start of the Hungarian presidency of the EU, Liszt's First Piano Concerto starred Stephen Hough as the soloist. He played with exuberance, panache and the utmost sensitivity, impressively thundering up and down the keyboard one moment, drawing exquisite hushed tones the next. (His unbelievably quiet and short encore was the Andantino from Liszt's Five Little Piano Pieces.)

After Beethoven's country stroll, the orchestra found itself in high spirits, rounding off the evening with Brahms's Hungarian Dance No. 21 and Johann Strauss's Peasant Polka. The audience clapped along, and the orchestra sang lustily. By the end, it was hard to spot anyone not making music. Except, of course, the orchestral tree.

Rebecca Franks is online editor and staff writer for BBC Music Magazine