Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra have been fixtures at the Prague Spring Festival. They first appeared here in 1996, and our regular visitors and audience members certainly do not need to be reminded about their thrilling closing concert in 2008, the appearance with the pianist Maria João Pires in 2015, and the wonderful performance of Mahler’s grandiose Symphony No. 2 in C minor (“Resurrection”) in 2018. “It is a great pleasure for me to return to Prague, a city that I both love and find culturally important. I have excellent memories of the audiences of the Prague Spring Festival of previous years”, says Iván Fischer. At this year’s festival, the orchestra will appear under his baton together with the winner of the 2015 Frédéric Chopin International Piano Competition Seong-Jin Choem with a programme devoted to Franz Liszt. “Liszt was a truly European composer who was equally at home in Germany, Italy, Hungary and in other countries”, says maestro Fischer. “His contribution to history was significant: he invented Zukunftsmusik, which prepared the direction for Wagner and others, and he was the first piano virtuoso who introduced the idea of a recital. Devoting an evening to him in Prague is a very special event.”
Iván Fischer and Zoltán Kocsis jointly founded the renowned ensemble in 1983, and Fischer has been at its helm as music director for nearly forty years. It is called one of the world’s best orchestras. It gives concerts regularly in the most renowned concert halls of Europe and the United States, including New York’s Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, the Musikverein in Vienna, and London’s Royal Albert Hall and Barbican Centre. It has earned two Grammophone Awards and France’s Diapason d’Or. In 2013 it was nominated for a Grammy for its recording of Mahler’s First Symphony.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra is also renowned for its absolutely original, innovative approach to the traditional ideas about what a classical music concert should be like. It is known for its midnight concerts, where audience members are seated directly among the musicians, and it also presents musical marathons, concerts with a surprise, and concerts intended especially for listeners with autism spectrum disorders and their family members.
The person behind most of these projects is Iván Ficher himself, who for a number of years has been called one of the most inspirational and successful leading figures of today’s music world. The 69-year-old Budapest native first studied piano, violin, and cello, then he graduated from Hans Swarowsky’s famed conducting course in Vienna. He collaborates regularly with the Berlin Philharmonic and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and he guest conducts in the United States. In the past, he has served as music director of the Kent Opera and the Opéra National de Lyon, and he has been the chief conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C.
For this year’s festival, he is bringing an entirely unique programme to Prague, consisting of the music of the Hungarian native Franz Liszt (1811-1886). The pianist Seong-Jin Cho is presenting himself with maestro Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. “More than anything, Cho seems to be developing into a poetic interpreter of the great piano works along with being a technical virtuoso – the perfect recipe for a prodigy to evolve into a legend”, wrote Ken Ross for the portal Maas Live in 2020.
“The last, and first, time I performed at the festival was in 2016, shortly after I won the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition”, recalls the brilliant Korean pianist. “I played a recital at the Rudolfinum with works by Mozart, Schubert and of course Chopin.” At the time, Irena Černíčková wrote the following in the journal Harmonie: “Ladies and gentlemen, remember the name Seong-Jin Cho. I have the strong feeling that an artist is emerging who will sell out prestigious concert halls around the world, and we will be hearing about him many more times.”
In January 2016, Seong-Jin Cho signed an exclusive contract with the prestigious German recording label Deutsche Grammophon, which issued his first CD that November. That Chopin recording, on which he is accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda, was followed a year later by a solo album with the music of Debussy and by a Mozart album in 2018.
His latest recording is a CD titled The Wanderer from May 2020 with the music of Schubert, Berg, and Liszt, and like its predecessors, it has won great acclaim from music critics. Besides international tours with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg with Gustavo Gimeno, under whose baton he will be performing Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto in February 2021 in Amsterdam and Budapest, there are also plans in the 2020/2021 season for an appearance with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Jakub Hrůša, with whom he performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 in 2019 at the Festival Internacional de Santander as part of a tour of Spain. In addition, he also appears in solo recitals, which have taken him to New York’s Carnegie Hall, Tokyo’s Suntroy Hall, the Walt Diseny Hall in Los Angeles, Geneva’s Victoria Hall, and London’s Wigmore Hall.
A native of Seoul, he studied at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris, and he now lives in Berlin. He will perform Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major. The composer began working on the concerto in 1839-1840, and after several revisions, he did not complete the final version until 1861. The work originally bore the title Concerto symphonique, i.e. “Symphonic Concerto”. In it, like in his previous piano concerto, Liszt attempted to create a work that combined elements of pianistic virtuosity with a symphonic dimension. The result is a one-movement composition based on a striking theme, which Liszt transforms in many ways using variation techniques.
The programme also includes what is by far Liszt’s most famous work, the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in D minor. With one of the best known of all melodies, it has been used in countless films and cartoons, and its opening motif and its exciting conclusion are known or familiar even to people who do not ordinarily encounter classical music in their daily lives. The concert will conclude with the Faust Symphony. This magnificent orchestral work, which Liszt composed between August and October 1854, draws upon Goethe’s great drama, to which the composer was introduced in 1830 by his friend Berlioz. Here, Liszt has recast the story of a man selling his soul to the devil into a large-scale orchestral composition in three movements, representing musical portraits of the three main characters – Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. The work is truly an exhibition of the composer’s masterful treatment of individual themes, which is most effective in the final movement titled Mephistopheles. For the devil, who is unable to create anything and can only destroy, Liszt did not compose any motif, and instead only allows him to “play around” with the Faust motif of the first movement. Although Liszt added a vocal ending for male choir and tenor three years later, for the Prague concert, Iván Fischer has chosen the original, purely instrumental version.