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MUSIC REVIEW : Rhapsodic Hungarians Bring Bit of Budapest to Bowl

July 28, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The Budapest Festival Orchestra, which made its U.S. debut on Tuesday with the first of four different programs at the Hollywood Bowl, isn't the smoothest-running symphonic apparatus in the world. It doesn't pretend to be.

Formed only 11 years ago, the ensemble didn't begin full-time operations until 1992. Although the youthful players assembled by conductor Ivan Fischer don't seem to make finesse a primary goal, they do muster a lot of gusto.

Under the right conditions, a lot of gusto can go a long way. The conditions were right, for the most part, on this occasion. Our rhapsodic Hungarian visitors exuded warmth and sincerity that often compensated for rough technical edges.

The Bowl hardly provides an ideal acoustical showcase for any orchestra these days. The amplified sound tends toward dullness, and the microphones exaggerate the separation of choirs.

It is difficult to gauge how the Budapest band might sound in an indoor concert hall. In the wide open spaces, the strings seemed resonant, the brass raucous and the winds thin. Precision of articulation tended to give way to cozy approximation--a performance practice the Germans like to call Schlamperei.

Opening-night nerves may have taken their toll. Still, the spirits were willing.

Unless one counts the elegiac Hungarian anthem that followed a very stately "Star-Spangled Banner," the introductory agenda avoided native impulses until encore time. Even then, with two Hungarian Dances of Brahms, the nationalism came second-hand. At least a little Liszt was scheduled for Wednesday night.

Fischer, who first appeared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic back in 1983, is something of an old-fashioned romanticist. He favors sentimental rhetoric and broad tempos, especially when cadences loom. He also savors the impact of flexibility.

He may allow certain transitions to sag. He invariably rises, however, to the zonking climaxes.

Unlike many a more famous maestro, he doesn't seem to take much for granted when riding tired warhorses to battle. That's a good thing.

It turned out to be especially good in a program that began--blithely--with the hum-along platitudes of Schubert's "Rosamunde" overture and ended--grandly--with the familiar convolutions of Brahms' Symphony No. 1.

The fun came in between, thanks to the soloist, Lynn Harrell. The American cellist made an appropriately elegant and silly escapade of Haydn's Concerto in C, Hob. VIIb:1, interpolating his own wildly comic cadenza in the opening movement. Then, equally inspired, he played Tchaikovsky's "Rococo" Variations with mock nonchalance that masked bravura complexity.

In both challenges, his tone was rich, his expressive scale mellow, his range of dynamic nuance subtle. Too bad the amplification system destroyed any semblance of natural balance, exaggerating the cello at the expense of the orchestra.

*

Incidental intelligence:

* A program insert memorialized Rudolf Firkusny, grand seigneur of the keyboard, who died last week at 82. A musical tribute would have been better.

* The attendance figure was officially tabulated at a modest 7,964 (the Bowl can accommodate as much as 18,000). The concert, occasionally embellished with police-siren obbligatos, also attracted 11 noisy airplanes and one friendly skunk.

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