I attended two concerts last year by Washington’s
National Symphony under Iván Fischer,
its current chief conductor. One contained Beethoven’s
Symphony No. 6 and Bartók’s Wooden
Prince, the other Mozart’s Prague
Symphony and Mahler’s Das Lied von
der Erde. In each case, the later work was
far better than the earlier one, that is, Fischer seemed to
have greater affinity for late-Romantic and twentieth-century
repertoire than he did for the music of the Classical period.
This is perhaps to be expected with a native Hungarian, like
Bartók, of whom Fischer is peerless among living conductors.
But his Mahler was also wonderfully idiomatic, as I pointed
out in my review of the composer’s Fourth Symphony. His
Mozart and Beethoven, on the other hand, did not seem like a
natural fit, just as I feel about the Brahms symphony under
As with the Mahler Fourth, there is nothing whatsoever
wrong with the performance per se.
The orchestra produces a wonderful sound that is picked up well
by the recording. I also have nothing but praise for their performance
of the Haydn Variations. Fischer
captures the spirit of each variation very well and leads up
to the culmination convincingly. Listening to this, my expectations
for the symphony were very high indeed.
The first movement begins well enough, even if the timpani’s
underpinning could make a greater impact. For comparison I turned
to two of my favorites of this oft-recorded work, both by the
Cleveland Orchestra, with George Szell (Sony) and Christoph
von Dohnanyi (Warner). Indeed, the latter is my touchstone for
this work. From this it is clear that I prefer a more classical
approach to this symphony, rather than a romantic one. Both
Szell, with a swifter tempo, and Dohnanyi are far more commanding
in this movement. Fischer tends to pull the tempi about throughout
the first and fourth movements, which seems to me to be applied
from outside rather than from within. A case in point comes
at about 14:44 at the first movement climax (measure 474 before
letter P in the Dover score to which I had access) where Fischer
over-emphasizes the last two eighth notes by playing them a
bit slower than the preceding ones. To me, it does not seem
natural and merely calls attention to itself.
I had no problem with the inner movements. The second movement
is warmly played and interpreted without any distortion in the
tempi. The oboe solo near the beginning and the horn and violin
solos near the end are exquisite, as are the ones for Dohnanyi
and Szell. Likewise, the third movement allegretto
is truly grazioso as
marked. Again comparisons with Szell and Dohnanyi show all three
to be of equal merit here. Fischer then begins the finale with
barely a break after the third movement. This is very effective.
He did the same in his recording of Mahler’s Fourth (as
do some other conductors) which segues well in this symphony.
I had never heard it done this way with the Brahms, though.
So, the finale begins well with a real sense of anticipation
although I could have used more forceful timpani. The horn solo
at the più andante is
beautifully played, as are the flute that follows it and the
trombones in their chorale. Fischer also chooses a good tempo
for the hymn tune at the allegro non troppo,
ma con brio with a little more emphasis on
the con brio than is sometimes
the case. Marin Alsop on her otherwise excellent Naxos recording
is just too slow there. When the climax is reached at letter
D (measure 94), Fischer is truly animato
as indicated in the score because he builds to the faster
tempo. However, the second time around with the hymn tune, he
lurches ahead at this same point (letter K, measure 220), without
having built it as well as he had done earlier. Both Szell and
Dohnanyi, but especially the latter, are far more convincing
here. Of course, it’s all a matter of interpretation and
some may prefer the more extreme tempo variations that Fischer
employs. What really rules this performance out for me, however,
is the ridiculous race to the finish that Fischer takes starting
at the final section marked più allegro.
His più is more like
molto allegro, again a matter of interpretation.
Both Dohnanyi and Szell conclude the symphony with more traditional
majesty and power. Even with his speed and somewhat blurred
articulation, Fischer still finds time for a luftpause
before the last note!
This recording has received some very positive reviews,
although not universally, and some may prefer the symphony interpreted
this way. I can recommend the disc only for the Haydn
Variations, but the symphony is after all the
main work. Fischer’s string arrangement of one of the
Hungarian Dances neither detracts nor adds much to the proceedings.