Scottish Chamber Orchestra with Thierry Fischer, Conductor play a Haydn Mass and Beethoven’s Fifth at Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

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Thierry Fischer

Thierry Fischer

Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Thierry Fischer, Conductor
13 October 2007, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Beethoven, Symphony No 5 in C minor (1808)
Haydn, Harmoniemesse (1802)

Joanne Lunn, Soprano
Tove Dahlberg, Mezzo soprano
James Gilchrist, Tenor
Stephan Loges, Bass baritone

SCO Chorus

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, founded in 1974, has enjoyed a world reputation for some time now for the work they have achieved over the years under Sir Charles Mackerras, who still conducts the orchestra on occasion. And they are anything if not versatile, playing a repertory spanning the Baroque and the contemporary. Saturday evening they were in their Classical mode, playing Haydn and Beethoven with a slightly relaxed compliment of original instruments (i.e. cellos on pins and metal flute alongside gut strings, natural horn and trumpet, etc.) under the direction of the brilliant Swiss conductor, Thierry Fischer. The evening was a splendid success, full of imaginative insights and intense music-making. The orchestra and singers seemed to enjoy it as much as the audience, a special distinction for Mr. Fischer, who conducts without a baton, using vigorous, occasionally extravagant gestures, which never failed to bring the musicians together in committed playing and tight ensemble.

Thierry Fischer, who began his musical career as a flautist, studied with Aurèle Nicolet, and later, when he became interested in conducting, with Nicolaus Harnoncourt and Claudio Abbado, under whom he played the flute in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. He first worked in the Netherlands and then came to the UK, where he has been Principle Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Ulster Orchestra. Next year he will take up the post of Chief Conductor of the Nagoya Philharmonic. The influence of his mentors, above all Harnoncourt, was much in evidence Saturday evening, but it was more than clear that he had thoroughly assimilated what he had learned from them and made it his own. I was impressed above all by his penetrating insight into both scores, but equally by the spontaneous, even fiery playing he produced from the SCO and the appealing gritty core in the orchestra’s sound in tutti.These were intensely exciting performances—to the intellect, as well as to the heart and the gut.

In the lively and mellow acoustics of the Queen’s Hall, an intimate space, in which the SCO Chorus stood against the back wall and the orchestra played almost in the center of the floor, surrounded on three sides by the audience, Thierry Fischer was able to produce as much blend or as much separation, almost a kind of varying relief of solo instruments and individual sections. The excellent SCO players must have been able to hear each other extraordinarily well in order to play together so responsively, to be capable of such dynamic nuances, and to produce such a cohesive blend when required. In the Fifth, for example, Beethoven’s passing dissonances came out especially well. Cellos and double basses produced wonderful dark sounds in their isolated passages. The SCO’s dynamic range was impressive, especially considering that they are a chamber orchestra with eight first violins playing in a small auditorium, not to mention their virtuosic flexiblity and their energetic precision of ensemble.

This accuracy was somewhat compromised at the beginning of the Fifth, where Fischer seemed to want Furtwänglerian “soft” attacks to emphasize the expressiveness and flow of the music. However, in the canonic entries of low strings in the trio of the third movement, where precision is essential, I don’t believe I have ever heard such tight ensemble. Through the first movement Fischer showed no temptation to rush, as he encouraged the musicians to dig into Beethoven’s knotty textures and swing out in grand climaxes. When the textures were reduced to quiet solo passages, as in the oboe cadence, the agile shift in dynamics and color was astonishing. In the second movement Fischer was also especially conscious of its grand, fortissimo gestures. The ghostly first subject of the scherzo in which cellos and basses barely whisper—or, better, rattle from the throat, Beethoven’s version of a danse macabre—was superbly realized, with a true pianissimo. As it built up into the insistent reiterations of Beethoven’s opening motif the period brass instruments created a splendid effect. The fourth movement, in which Fischer observed the essential repeat, as most conductors do nowadays, was full of all the energy and excitement we might expect from an ideal performance, created not only by crisp rhythms and loud climaxes, but by startling constrasts of dynamics, color, and texture. As the climax approached, Fischer pressed the tempo most effectively, hair-raisingly really, allowing the final chords and the rests between them to make their full effect. Thierry Fischer and the SCO succeeded thoroughly in helping us to discover this very great, but familiar symphony afresh.

After deliberately arriving early to hear The Creation at the Barbican, I was not expecting to find myself writing about a second important Haydn performance so soon. The Harmoniemesse, composed in 1802, three years afterThe Creation, is the last of Haydn’s great mature settings of the Liturgy of the Mass. In general the performances I’ve heard in the past, while certainly not sliding over the peculiarities of Haydn’s writing, do not quite reveal what an extraordinary composition it is. Beginning in its extensive orchestral introduction, Haydn treats the wind band as a separate unit, not only doing its traditional work of supporting the strings, but also operating as a distinct choir, in constantly changing combinations. But this is only one of Haydn’s innovations. He treats his quartet of solo singers in a similar way. In contrast to his earlier Masses, the soloists sing primarily as a quartet or in duos, with rare and brief solo passages, providing a seamless contrapuntal texture. He also makes much of triple meters, especially in 6/8 time, contrasting them boldly with the duples, as well as complex syncopation and use of “wrong” accents. The Harmoniemesse is full of good humor and wit, slyly undermining and understating the sophistication and originality of Haydn’s work. Although The Creation stands out as a flawless statement of the values of its time, the Enlightenment standing on the brink of Romanticism, Haydn went on besting himself (and others, Beethoven included) in work after work. Thierry Fischer’s study with the great and inventive Harnoncourt bore worthy fruit in his brilliant analysis of Haydn’s score. While, in the spirit of Haydn, this had to proceed from an intellectual core, it expressed itself in powerful high spirits and moving expression, almost approaching the football celebrations which had been going on in the streets outside the Queen’s Hall.

Fischer began the orchestral introduction to the Kyrie with a deliberate pace and grand, emphatic rhythms. The wind band made is first appearance with clarinets producing the very un-Roman Masonic sonorities we know from Mozart’s Masonic ritual music and Die Zauberflöte, not to mention Haydn’s own—for the only time in the Mass, I think—perhaps a personal Masonic signature of the composer. This is probably the moment to mention that the superb SCO Chorus sang to marvelous effect in the Queen’s Hall, which imposes none of the constriction of loud soprano lines so evident in modern halls like the Barbican and Sosnoff. Even in the loudest passages the choral sound was clear and open. The dark cello-bass sounds already heard in the Beethoven sounded to great effect here, and the pensive interjections of the wind players seemed to be making  touching comments on the traditional phrases of the Liturgy.

In the Gloria, Mr. Fischer sculpted the rocking rhythms and syncopations of the orchestral accompaniment to great effect in the Gratias agimus, and soprano Joanne Lunn and bass Stephan Loges, both superb vocally and musically, sang intertwined solos. In the In gloria Dei Patris Fischer pushed the tempo advisedly to create a thrilling anticipatory climax.

Ms. Lunn, who was most expressive in her phrasing, also resorting to the historical practice of spreading into her longer important notes with a crescendo, was especially striking in the Et incarnatus est, leading up to the chillingly drawn out and static pianissimo of the Et Mortuorum.

Mr. Fischer’s treatment of the strongly rhythmic Et vitam venturi saeculi in 6/8 time was full of vigor and a keen appreciation of its uniqueness, as it was in the Hosanna at the end of the Sanctus. The elaborate lively orchestral introduction to the Benedictus est echoed the introduction to the Kyrie with orchestra and chorus in a delicate, beautifully realized running pianissimo, eventually interrupted by a pensive and moving single note from the clarinet. When the Hosanna returns, Fischer allowed the shift of meter to happen with a surprising bluntness, recalling the twentieth century composers, Stravinsky, Honneger and others, of whom he is very fond. At the very end, brilliantly executed dynamic contrasts made the Dona nobis pacem as full-blooded and exciting as the conclusion of Beethoven’s Fifth in the first half of the concert.

Many scales dropped from my ears in this performance. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus showed themselves to be among the very best of their class. I think Thierry Fischer is an absolutely brilliant conductor and musician, who deserves a high place in the generation which will succeed the great Harnoncourt and Abbado. The four soloists were excellent. For me, the past few months have rich in performances of Haydn’s choral music. The SCO are keen on thematic programming, and their season will close with Beethoven’sEroica Symphony and Haydn’s Nelson Mass on May 8, 2008, when their highly regarded Principle Guest Conductor, the Estonian Olari Elts, will conduct them

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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