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alternatively Crotchet

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1812) [41:04]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Clarinet concerto No. 1 in F minor (1811): Adagio [6:18]*
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
L’Italiana in Algeri (1813): Sinfonia [8:12] 
Johann Wilhelm WILMS (1772-1847)
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 23 (1812): Rondo [5:13]
Akos Acs (clarinet)*
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Ivan Fischer
rec. September 2006, Palace of Arts, Budapest, DDD.

Experience Classicsonline

From the opening of the introduction to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony Ivan Fischer makes clear the juxtaposition of power in orchestral chords and poetry in oboe melody. Not only power but effort, notably in this performance in the incisive strings’ ascending scales in the first tutti, with a sense of endeavour, exploration and a determination to succeed. Come the vivace exposition proper, the flute solo first theme (tr. 1 3:49) has something of a whirlwind giddiness about it and the following tutti, with the important horn parts vibrant, has a festive swagger. The second theme (4:50) even more exudes the freedom of release. The development (8:15) is firm with an inner fire stoked by its rhythmic obsession. The recapitulation has a comparable intensity yet the poetic aspect returns with the oboe solo version of the first theme marked ‘sweet’ (10:43) while the brief disappearance of the background rhythm and apparent slight slowing in this performance in the oboe, then flute and clarinet, solos from 10:54 is a magical interlude of tender reflection. In the coda (12:30) Fischer gives full play to the ominous brooding of the violas, cellos and double basses and achieves an exciting increase in dynamic and rhythmic impetus to a triumphantly assertive close.

I compared on SACD the 2005 live performance by the London Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink (LSO Live LSO 0578). Here are the comparative timings:



















Haitink’s approach is more classical, Fischer’s more romantic with sound to match: Haitink’s brighter, leaner, with a more sharply focussed bass; Fischer’s denser, warmer, with a more diffuse bass. Haitink brings more weight but less density to the introduction’s orchestral chords, more dreaminess to the poetry, more graceful strings’ ascents of objective formality, but not the heroic deliberation and vigour of Fischer’s. Haitink’s flute solo first theme is calmer, his second leaner, his recapitulation neater than Fischer’s without the slight slowing. Haitink’s coda smoulders gradually to a close blazing enough but more formally controlled than Fischer’s explosiveness.

The second movement is this symphony’s slowest but is still marked Allegretto. Fischer treats this in fairly measured fashion which creates an opening of dark sepulchral hue, weighed down. Come the counter melody on violas and cellos (tr. 2 0:54) the sense of lament increases, perhaps for a hero? As in the first movement there’s a deliberation about the expression. By the time this counter melody is given out by the first violins, in passionate yet quite lean tone, there’s a sense of heroic fortitude. The central section (3:22) offers the solace of a balmy clarinet solo and still more serene second theme (3:53), curtailed by the recapitulation but this seems to have a smoother complexion as a result. The rhythms in this performance have become neat and sensitively intricate so the fugato development of the first theme (5:55) seems a natural progression. Fischer much enjoys its gentle shading, so much that the relatively quick crescendo at the end (6:44) and affirmative tutti, taken slightly faster, seem a mite forced. However, the return of the clarinet theme is melting repose while the coda is thoughtfully distilled.

Haitink’s second movement is a more regular Allegretto which gives more shape to the line and brings to the counter melody a more beauteous sorrow while the increase and decrease in dynamics as it continues are telling and impassioned, rather more freely than Fischer. All instruments in the central section are marked soft. Haitink maintains more equality between the themes in the wind and accompaniment in the strings which subdues the calm as the accompaniment is still troubled. This also makes the return of the opening more expected but of the middle section more serene.

By turns soft and smooth, loud and gruff Fischer’s scherzo has pace and bounce and a virtuoso flourish about its progression. His trio (tr. 3 2:18), more considered and sustained, still incorporates a tension in wishing to progress and latterly a grandeur of statement. The softer return of the scherzo is lighter, more diaphanous, you feel it could vanish altogether. The return of the trio is still more considered, an affectionate recall at first while the later grandeur is enhanced. The final return of the scherzo is tight and neat, a touch formal but leading logically to the coda’s terse rejection of another return of the trio. Haitink’s scherzo has more clown like sense of fun with a nice balance between the neat and bluff aspects, clean line and rhythmic verve. Fischer is more celebratory with more outlandish dynamic and tonal contrasts and as often a sense of swirling dance. Haitink’s trio, with its wind’s gentle tiptoe against a clear string horizon then firm heroic climax, has more tension about it than Fischer’s deft simultaneous conveying of reflection and progression, more opulent wind tone and grander climaxes.

Fischer gives full value to both the splendour and mayhem of the finale. Its swirling opening theme has precipitous momentum, drive and density. The triumphant horns are clear as are the flutes cascading down at the end of the theme. There’s a sense of spontaneous combustion. Fischer rather tones down the dynamic contrasts in the second theme (tr. 4 1:07) but brings wild fury to the close of the exposition. The development has an epic rhetorical manner to start but the frenzied dance continues unstoppable. The second theme and its explosive aftermath take on a more urbane hue but Fischer’s concentration on the ominous fixated repetitive bass in the coda sweeps this calmer phase away and he brings out Beethoven’s two rare fff climaxes thrillingly. Generally Haitink isn’t quite as powerhouse but shows a lean verve and athletic drive as well as stronger dynamic contrasts in the second theme, a keen development, though not with Fischer’s tension and determination and vivid crescendos in the coda, though not as prominent a bass groundswell as Fischer.

The other items on Fischer’s SACD are innovative, an antidote to taking Beethoven for granted. They are contemporary works to set in relief against Beethoven’s achievement. In a booklet note which commendably considers the contrasts between the works featured Clemens Romijn quotes Weber’s observation on Beethoven 7 that “whoever wrote this work was fit to be committed to an asylum”. With the slow movement of Weber’s first clarinet concerto we get his musical perspective which explains his reaction: a different world of sustained line, a cantilena of luscious chromatically spiced ascents and descents. Akos Acs garnishes it with appropriate ornamentation as would a singer. The minimalist melody of extreme repetition of Beethoven’s slow movement wouldn’t do, even though the passionate intensity that derives from that Weber moves towards in a more animated second section (tr. 5 2:14). Weber’s innovation lies rather in exotic orchestration, in this movement a third section of gentle reverie (2:51) given to 3 horns, alongside which the clarinet muses.

I’m struck by the similarities between Beethoven’s symphony and Rossini’s overture to The Italian in Algiers. A soft opening is exploded by loud chords. The introduction and continuation of the Allegro first theme is full of repetitions of string patterns. The focus of the climax (tr. 6 4:36) is in its rhythm and repetition with a jolly theme in the lower strings as accompaniment. Structure, emotion and rhythmic drive are more important than melody. Rossini, however, does provide some melodic charm too: the sinuous descending oboe decoration in the introduction, the chirpy flute, oboe and clarinet first theme (2:00) and the cheeky oboe second theme (3:21). Fischer plays up the comic aspects with ear splitting loud chords, a ragamuffin of a flute in piccolo register, the delightful shawm style oboe (6:25), a rampant triangle and side drum. Every mood is caught with the utmost vivacity. I compared the 1991 recording by the London Classical Players/Roger Norrington (EMI 7 54091 2, no longer available). There’s a more arch knowingness about the alluring personality of Norrington’s oboe solos where Fischer goes more directly for melodic comeliness. Norrington emphasises precision, balletic lightness and balance, Fischer achieves the more sheer heady excitement of frenetic tuttis.

The rondo finale of Wilms’ Symphony 4 Fischer plays as a fun piece. It starts off in trim classical style in the minor and gets up a fair head of steam in the tutti but its episode (tr. 7 1:13) is sunny and also accelerates. It’s the mood of that episode which wins out. Fischer keeps up the momentum entertainingly and thus it has something of the helter-skelter quality of the Beethoven 7 finale but nothing of its wildness or potential for going off the rails. With Wilms it’s just a merry-go-round. But it also makes creative use of repetition. The rondo theme starts with 4 repetitions of the opening note. Repeated patterns by the oboe from 3:54 and violins from 4:00 stoke up the energy as Beethoven might but only to convey high spirits, no mania.

So if a Beethoven 7 with strong romantic leanings, plenty of flair, a miscellany of other works which point up its special nature appeals, and you’re happy with a slowish second movement, Fischer could well fit the bill.

Michael Greenhalgh



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