It can be an education to see an orchestra letting its hair down, especially one as disciplined as the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Playing in T-shirts and jeans, and with their music director, Iván Fischer, proving an amusingly laid-back compère as he chatted with the audience, the musicians unveiled a new look at their late-night Prom on Friday.
Before that, though, they had a standard concert to play. In the year of Liszt’s bicentenary, it was only to be expected that his Hungarian compatriots would bring with them an offering or two. The orchestral version of the Mephisto Waltz No.1 introduced devilry of a scintillating kind, as the Budapest orchestra conjured its most detailed playing. In his Totentanz they were matched for brilliance by the razor-sharp young pianist Dejan Lazi. Some of this year’s Liszt performances have been content with splashy effects, but not these two.
The other composer of the early evening Prom was Mahler. As always, Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra had been exhaustive in their rehearsals, taking both Blumine, originally intended to form part of the Symphony No.1, and the symphony itself to the point where not a single phrase was left to chance. The symphony here became a story of rigorously controlled extremes: sometimes the music hung fire and the very exactness of every detail started to sound pedantic, but wherever the pace picked up, the exhilaration could be electric.
There were no encores. Instead, everybody returned an hour later for a late-night “Audience Choice” programme. The orchestra had come prepared with a shortlist of 285 pieces and the tuba player went round the audience playing lucky dip with the raffle numbers. A vote was taken to finalise each winning choice and the orchestra’s librarian then had five minutes to find each set of parts – madness, of course, but entertaining. All the chosen pieces were, in effect, encores: Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, Stravinsky’s Tango, and so on. Also on the list was Elgar’s In the South but nobody picked that, which was a shame. A dose of Elgar might really have tested the Hungarians’ mettle.