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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)   
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1799-1800) [27:44]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1807-08) [33:21]
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
rec. 2017, Palace of Arts, Budapest

With works as familiar as Beethoven’s symphonies and the new recordings that will come in this year of the 250th anniversary of his birth, how can their individual distinctiveness be identified? I’ll try to map out what are for me key issues in a performance and how here Iván Fischer responds. But first what is for me of overall importance with Beethoven is that he not only dared to, but was determined to, experiment. This is why every symphony is for him a new beginning.

That Symphony 1 is the beginning doesn’t make it less experimental. My first key issue in its first movement is the nature of its Adagio molto introduction and relationship to the main body Allegro. Looking at Mozart’s last three symphonies with introductions (36, 38 and 39), his method is a dramatic, masculine, sonorous blast followed by a soft, lissom, feminine response. Haydn is more varied: Symphony 102 sonorous but mysterious, then a lovely, refined, soft melody; 103 a drumroll, ominous, then reflective string bass and bassoon; 104 a sonorous blast then reflective. So, Mozart is sensual, Haydn more thoughtful. Beethoven is different, emphasising freshness and exploration. The first two chords of this C major work are in F major, the next two in C major, but the following four emphatically affirm G major. The sonority is wind dominated, the strings playing pizzicato until the final chord, then the violins sing. The elegant ambling, eventually trickling up from G major (again) down to C major and the Allegro Fischer reveals in turn with clarity, charm in the savouring of the singing passage, authority and deftness but my overall impression is of kaleidoscopic changeability. Fischer and Beethoven are saying in this work, “Expect the unexpected.”

My second key issue is the progress of the Allegro. From an inconsequential yet busy start it finally scales a wall to reach a lively tutti. Its second theme (tr. 1, 2:04) is a charming dialogue among the woodwind and then between woodwind and violins, the interplay stylishly articulated by Fischer. This theme is invigorated in its second phase (2:24) by the rhythm of running semiquavers. A third phase (2:34) is a wan descent in the string bass recovered by a chirpy theme from oboe and then bassoon, leading to a return to and expansion of the first theme, reaching for the sky to close the exposition. In the development, I like the way Fischer handles the punctuating fp chords as firm nudges but not great smacks. He’s particularly interested in the delicacy, quite fairy-like, with which recollections of the first theme are treated before its firmer treatment, itself a transitional stage before the full grandeur of its recapitulation in unison wind and strings. Fischer’s coda (8:20) evolves with similar stylish gradation to the fanfare celebrations in which trumpets and drums come to the fore.

I compared this with the recording by Iván Fischer’s elder brother Ádám conducting the Danish Chamber Orchestra in a cycle recorded between 2016 and 2019 (Naxos 8.505251). I like the freshness of tone in the introduction and generally from Ádám’s orchestra, of which he has been the principal director for 22 years, but it isn’t as stylish as Iván’s orchestra, which he founded 36 years ago. Yet in one respect Ádám is more Beethovenian: the more purposive strings and vigorous projection of the first theme. In the second theme, I like Ádám’s stress on the sforzandos in the accompanying first bassoon, (2:10 and 2:11 in Iván’s recording) in a flourish or even guffaw which gives the progress more fizz; but Ádám’s oboe and bassoon solos in the third phase have less character than Iván’s. In the development Ádám’s firmer fp chords are more startling, but there’s crispness rather than Iván’s delicacy in the recollections of the first theme while Ádám’s unison tutti of the recapitulation seems to me rather formally sober. However, I like the way Ádám’s coda flows quite naturally straight from the recap, again a matter of projection, and his ff entry of the timpani roll near the end, a beat later than the rest of the orchestra so not to cover its unison fanfare (8:56 in Iván’s recording) has more impact.

My prime concern regarding the slow movement, an Andante cantabile con moto, so not very slow, is its character. I’d say it’s really a ballet and this is how Iván approaches it, applying the rhythms lightly, making it a neatly pointed, elegant dance while still observing Beethoven’s frequent staccato markings. Although it doesn’t open with solos, as it starts pp the sound is as if just one dancer, second violin, creeps onto the stage, shortly followed by two more, viola and cello, then two more, a bassoon and double bass, and then suddenly the whole troupe has arrived. That first theme is a proposition to which the second (tr. 2, 0:52), Iván more tender and cajoling, is a suave acceptance. The exposition codetta (1:44) is a modestly indulgent closing gliding across the stage followed by a curtsy. To maintain the elegance, the louder passages and sforzandos need treating with moderation as Iván does. The development is no more than a quick shower to allow you to appreciate the more the finesse of the return of the opening theme now festooned with a contrapuntal accompaniment in running semiquavers. In the coda the oboes add a new melody (7:25), a kind of variation on the first theme, both contented with it and providing a springboard for the orchestra to reach an urbane climax.

Ádám, timing this movement at 7:07 to Iván’s 8:35, is closer to Beethoven’s marking and the happy atmosphere he conveys, particularly in the coda, is attractive. He also has a good dance spring but misses Iván’s lightness with a heavier tone and sonority in the ‘whole troupe’ passages, but you might prefer these fuller, jollier and more robust. Nevertheless, I miss Iván’s suaveness in the second theme.
The concern in the Minuet is again a matter of character: how fast should it be and what is its relationship with the Trio? The Minuet, by title, is a dance, but this one is Allegro molto e vivace, so the nymphs of the slow movement have now become Cossacks, the pace and efficiency rather than elegance of whose manoeuvres is to be admired. You should feel swept off your feet by a Scherzo under the mask of Minuet. From Iván I didn’t feel this so much as a presentation, carrying over the elegance of his slow movement, in which clarity and balance are favoured at the expense of excitement. Ádám, however, timing at 3:26 in comparison with Iván’s 4:02, brings a sense of breathless endeavour and urgency, even in the quiet passages, and throughout a hive of activity, with the parade of staccatos, sforzandos and syncopation not just clear but vibrant. The Trio, by contrast, does look back to a more elegant time. In this, Iván violins’ tracery in accompanying is exquisite, but his woodwind melody in the first strain to me sounds cautious. Ádám’s violins’ tracery is more alert but still quite gossamer, yet how warm and mellow is his woodwind melody above and, if the closing tutti sounds rather blustering, I suggest that’s what Beethoven means.

In the finale, my main criterion is the nature and contrasts of its celebration. Like the first movement, there’s a slow introduction. This one could hardly be simpler: just first violins giving birth to the first theme in fragments until we get the whole first phrase which can then be repeated Allegro molto e vivace and we’re off into a main body which Haydn would probably have gone straight into, as in his Symphony 102. However, what I suggest Beethoven is doing is setting a tone of jocularity and also reminding you of “expect the unexpected”, as in the introduction to the first movement. Iván presents at first with deftness and lightness, then the second part of the first theme of loud rising oboes, horns and timpani (tr. 4, 0:49) followed by falling violins is such a contrast and, just as you are getting used to a tutti brio, a charming soft second theme comes along (1:10). It’s sunny and carefree but with repeated rising sequences it climaxes in this exposition codetta to a modest brass and timpani jamboree. Now early in the development I don’t think Iván provides enough contrast where the dynamic changes to ff (3:07) and all hell breaks loose, albeit briefly, though his ff passage at the end of the development is engagingly spirited before Beethoven slips the carpet from under our feet to go into a diaphanous recapitulation. After a grand rhetorical flourish where, if this were a concerto, you’d expect a cadenza, we get for coda just the first theme again. But then the violins are pushed up an octave and there’s a bevy of fanfares and twirling semiquavers to make hay with. Iván does this all enjoyably, yet in the romping passages I wish he wasn’t quite so polite.

Ádám, timing the finale at 5:39 against Iván’s 5:57, achieves more dynamism. His first theme has the feel of enjoyed capering and the determination to have a spree. Its second part is bright and his second theme is sunny, with the gusto that no opportunity to make merry is lost. Iván provides more emotional contrast but Ádám’s more straightforward approach satisfies too. His dynamic contrast in the development is better pointed. His softness at the beginning of the coda also effectively points its mimicking of the soft opening of the introduction, though this latter Ádám overdoes, given it is marked p, not pp in the Henle urtext. To the closing bars Ádám’s timpani bring more relish than Iván’s.

In Symphony 5, my first key issue is its first movement call-to-attention and the counter-call. About the call to attention this CD’s booklet note asks, “Who does not know the world-famous theme? Short-short-short long.” But can you really call four notes a theme? Rather is it an almost ubiquitous motif and I think, albeit anachronistically of the 1914 magazine cover ‘Your Country Needs YOU’ with Lord Kitchener pointing directly at you that inspired later posters. The ‘short’ of the motif is always a quaver, but the ‘long’ varies from a crotchet to two minims and often a pause which is for the conductor to decide.  Iván Fischer gives those pauses full attention, so you’re made to feel the impact of the summons. Beethoven doesn’t point: he usually digs you in the ribs, he sometimes gently taps you on the arm, but at the beginning of the development he smacks you across the face. The exposition does have a sunny bit which in a conventional symphony would be the second theme. It begins with the first variation and expansion of the motif, ff on two horns (tr. 5, 0:44), a vision of how much better things will be if you enlist and to its tutti which closes the exposition Iván brings a swagger. That development beginning, ff on two clarinets and horns (2:49), stark enough from Iván, is a reality check. Yet, with the clarity of orchestral texture that Iván supplies, you admire the tight ship, the individual activity detailed around the recurring demands for discipline. Then, out of the blue, comes the counter-call, an oboe solo marked Adagio (4:25) which consists of three stepwise descending notes repeated with a basic ‘turn’ as ornament between them. This changes the perspective from corporate activity to individual feeling. It’s eloquently presented by Fischer’s oboist and doesn’t stint on the marked pauses. So, it haunts the streamlined efficiency and even heightened intensity of the rest of the movement. The first motif-crammed 0:23 of the exposition is cut in the recapitulation, but there’s an extensive coda from 5:45.

I compared this with another SACD newcomer, the recording made in 2018 by the WDR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Janowski (Pentatone PTC 5186 809). The ‘action’ here is heavier and more brutal. I think this is partly owing to the Kölner Philharmonie having a more glowing acoustic than the Budapest Palace of Arts. In the tutti sound the string bass is thicker, gruffer. This isn’t my preference but it’s a personal thing. Timing the movement at 7:05, I was surprised to learn Janowski is only six seconds faster than Fischer, as listening to him after Iván I was very conscious of a more sweeping manner. This makes the sunny ‘second theme’ in its appearances less of a relief. It flows smoothly, but Fischer savours it more. However, I did prefer Janowski’s counter call. His oboist is more plaintive, cries as long as Fischer’s, but more like a lament than a tombstone elegy. I also prefer Janowski’s treatment of the coda, to which he brings a more epic and summative quality.

My prime consideration in the second movement is the contrast between the domestic and public. The marking is Andante con moto and Fischer succeeds in making its opening theme, a gentle stroll in A flat major) sound appreciative and relaxed, yet with a will to go forward. The second theme (tr. 6, 0:59) begins in similar vein but then rises to a very soft, hesitant questioning followed by a very loud affirmation, the oboes, horns and trumpets’ very loud repeat of this theme with timpani backing a confirmation that this is the public stance and the first appearance of C major which is to be the symphony’s conclusion. But the questioning continues and brings about the return of the first theme now overlaid with a simple clarinet solo, beautifully played here by Fischer’s clarinettist, taking us back to that individual feeling of the oboe solo in the first movement. Also, what is presented here is a variation of the first theme. The polarization is clearly shown by Fischer to be an absolute and continuing one. The second appearance of the second theme is in brisker fashion, also a kind of variation though less markedly as for the first theme, but that in its second variation begins to show its teeth. The second theme’s third appearance is all grand bombast enjoyed by Fischer. But the first theme’s third variation is then itself a grandiloquent tutti. A faster coda is a kind of fourth variation: the domestic left supreme? No. Two clarinets and two bassoons binge on the end of the theme when the martial forces swoop down and finish with a triumphant fanfare. Beethoven is having his cake and eating it. Fischer’s command of dynamic contrasts and suave phrasing adds to the colour and fun of the presentation. You can’t help but feel Beethoven really wants domesticity to win but can’t allow this in the context.

Janowski’s view of this movement is rather different, but attractive. His handling of the domestic material is warmer, more maternal, and his more glowing acoustic assists this. His public material is more heavyweight in the bass but the brass, trumpets especially, glow sunnily, so there is a sense of anticipated triumph, even though you might think the second movement is early for this, a sense that this is the right order of things: in appreciating your freedom, Janowski making the woodwind reflective material pastoral and idyllic, you have to fight to retain it. The WDRSO playing here is captivating and throughout Janowski’s dynamic shading is sensitive. So, with Janowski, you realize more that this isn’t a contest between domestic and public but rather a coming together of shared objectives. This approach requires a little tempering of the very loud public material, so the climactic presentation of the first theme as a public tutti is noble and rounded instead of Fischer’s grandiloquence and the movement’s closing fanfare is similarly mellowed, but the gain in frame of mind is worth the tweaking. 

My concern in the third movement scherzo and trio is for the contrast between the two. An argument in favour of Fischer’s more uneasy manner in the domestic material in the second movement is that it chimes with that of the opening of the scherzo’s mysterious, apprehensive vein, while the entrance of the horns and then tutti with a monotone version of the first movement motto increases the disquiet. What you remember about the scherzo is its soft, spooky opening. If you remember the trio (tr. 7, 1:50) at all, it’s rather as a cadenza, owing to the virtuosity unexpected in its running quavers for double basses as well as cellos, later violas and bassoons and finally violins. Yet this is a clear moment of anticipated triumph, a second airing in the work of C major. Should the conductor draw attention to this or leave it to germinate in your consciousness? I like the contrast of eagerness that Fischer provides: a spring in the suddenly more plentiful steps. The scherzo and C minor return, but with Iván the anxiety has gone. The light scoring is balletic, the prominent bassoon solo seems to twinkle with a sense of adventure. OK, we tiptoe around furtively, which has me thinking, anachronistically again, of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but all will go well. As the moment of confrontation nears, things get nervy: the drum starts tapping continuous crotchets, could be to a scaffold. The scherzo’s opening motif turns out to be the springboard for a series of rising, confidence boosting, sequences leading to the final push, a long crescendo with drum roll and strings’ tremolando. Isn’t this the most exciting moment in the work? How taut and searing should the conductor make it? For Fischer, it seems to be simply the fulfilment of a vision and those preparatory sequences. His emphasis is on the attacca to the instant power and jubilation of the finale.

Janowski presents the scherzo smooth and mysterious, even at the cost of a fairly contained approach to the display of the motto rhythm, but I like that his trio has more character than Fischer’s, owing to more edge in the strings’ sound, especially the bass, giving it a more earthy, proletarian nature, so you don’t think of virtuosity. Yet with the return of the scherzo and sensitive attention to Beethoven’s dynamic contrasts again, Janowski’s delicacy seems to be steering us into fairyland, understating the comedic aspect at this point which Fischer reveals. There is an element of awe to this transitional material, but it’s more like drifting, dreamlike into the final push than Fischer’s faith that the tide has turned. Janowski’s long crescendo, however, is a little more powerful than Fischer’s and is followed by more bombast in the opening of the finale.

A matter of concern is how the mood of the finale should be conveyed. It seems to me that it’s essentially an OTT, cock-a-hoop piece and, though some nobility and magnanimity is also warranted, notably in the second theme, another motto display introduced by the wind (tr. 8, 0:36), it mustn’t dilute the party. The third theme (1:03), however dressed up, is just a carefree dance, the fourth (1:31) another aspiration to nobility. But come the development, the third and fourth themes are presented simultaneously (5:11) to exhilarating effect. Fischer gets a good balance between beamingly happy and grand, with brightness of tone and rhythmically the spring in the step still there.

Another issue, however, is how should the unexpected return of the scherzo be treated? Is it a ploy to recapitulate the work’s pivotal moment of transition? Not altogether, because the crescendo this time is shorter. I’d suggest it’s a reminder of the trial experienced before success as well as a means of reinforcing the earned celebration after it. But a recollection (5:45) isn’t the same as the original, raw experience and I think Fischer is right in making it a chaste, pure toned memorial, almost a dispassionate interlude before the recap of the finale material. Then, in the coda with two bassoons introducing yet another motto theme (8:57) the merrymaking can reach near fever pitch. And how marvellous the individual making whoopee is spotlit through piccolo solos and a huge trill. Finally, the knees-up increases in pace. Iván presents all this with admirable zest and clarity.

Janowski’s finale is initially more cock-a-hoop than Fischer’s. It blazes in as splendid, glowing and weighty, but also lively. The most vivid early picture is the glee of the first violins’ and upper woodwind’s repeated tumbling semiquavers. The sense of being impelled forward is stronger than that of Fischer’s presentation of themes. They just stream through. The second theme is moderately robust, but the third little more than a twirl in the melee. The fourth is underplayed until Janowski’s canny build-up to its simultaneous presentation with the third theme to create the climax of the exposition. His approach to the return of the scherzo is cautionary, not so much Fischer’s interlude as an unexpected chill in the atmosphere, on the edge of fear returning when we find ourselves quickly back at a party which is at first more gratefully than jubilantly sonorous, yet at the same time seems to gather a gusto which makes the appearances of the individual themes more distinctive than the first time. Janowski is very good at attending to the long view. His coda is bright, neat and disciplined, but no longer has the exultation of the finale’s opening, nor the excitement of Fischer’s speeding up. His piccolo doesn’t quite command the attention like Fischer’s.  Did that ghost of the scherzo scupper Janowski’s celebration a bit?

Michael Greenhalgh

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