Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra Perform Brahms’ First and Third Symphonies

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Iván Fischer | Photo © Marco Borggreve

Iván Fischer | Photo © Marco Borggreve

Davies Hall, San Francisco
Sunday, January 25, 2015
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer, conductor

Brahms Symphony No. 3 in F major, Opus 90 (1882)
Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68 (1876)

Think what you will about San Francisco, but nobody ever said it was Hungarian! You might have been fooled yesterday at Davies Hall, though, rubbing elbows with an enthusiastic elderly audience assembled for Iván Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra. Sunday attendees do normally look a bit older, retired Stanford and Berkeley faculty perhaps, in from the suburbs. But during the week, a twenty-something dating crowd prone to show off its legs and neck in the corridors, leavens the age mix. This time the young were missing. (Their loss!) There was something very “1956” and central European about the crowd, right down to the fuzzy coats and orange hair.

It was certainly the right place for them to be. From the very first explosive chords of the Brahms Third Symphony, one had the feeling of being transported to Brahms’ world in another time. Symphony orchestras, like people, have accents. It is hard to say exactly which instrumental  intonation first captures the imagination and takes you away to the Austro-Hungarian empire, but listening to a few moments of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, we were there…

The Hungarian love of Brahms is a two-way street. Nineteenth century café culture in Germany and Austria-Hungary was deeply influenced by Gypsy violin playing. German restaurants of my youth in New York City still sometimes had string orchestras. And the distant memories I have of them occupy the same world as the Brahms Hungarian Dances. The performing style of the Budapest Festival Orchestra comes to us from this cafe culture. Considered rightly one of the world’s great orchestras, it is not a particularly accurate one. No orchestra of this quality is going to play obvious wrong notes, but the strength of Iván Fischer and his orchestra lies more in its zestful phrasing than in its perfect voicing of chords. At times the orchestra sounds like a high energy string quartet that has forgotten its size.

That said, I found Budapest’s take on the Brahms Third Symphony the most compelling I have encountered since Karajan’s famous 1974 Carnegie Hall performance. Brahms must either be of exquisite gold and played with iconic gravitas or, as here, swoop and swerve with life as though there were no tomorrow. Fischer took the exposition repeat, always a bone of contention in Brahms, but the performance was so alive, one didn’t mind being taken back to page one. The Budapest Festival Orchestra has piquant, almost sour sounding woodwinds, but once used to them, I enjoyed the dancing beauty Fischer managed in the first movement’s lyrical episodes. Fischer’s approach was free and intuitive. Nothing dragged.

This sort of insight was the order of the evening. The central portion of the slow movement “panted” quietly through huge ritards, yet a swift tempo, a real “andante” kept it moving. The third movement left one nearly prostrate with its nostalgic beauty, and the finale, for all its swift tempo and electrifying energy, concluded in a very “Forest Murmurs” manner, reverential and moving.

The Brahms Third is a marvel of internal connectivity, a perfectly constructed world built from a simple foundation of four notes. As a work of art, it would be easy to argue for the preeminence of its perfection.  But for the average listener, the more dramatic First Symphony is gateway Brahms. Fischer’s performance of the First, which concluded the program, was utterly fascinating and unusual.

These days, playing of the first movement has evolved from what it was fifty years ago. The pounding introduction, taken slowly, tends to be followed now by an equally heavy and slow tempo for the Allegro – disobeying its own instructions, you might say. The symphony can sink from sheer gravitas. Iván Fischer’s opening was slow, at first not very loud, but more quietly dramatic than usual, with a lot of internal surging and fading of dynamics. But no need to worry about tempo. “Wham,” began the Allegro, and Fischer took off like a jackrabbit… the pace was straight out of George Szell!

One of the key moments in this work is the central climax of the first movement. It is presented here with a more eerie buildup than I’ve yet encountered. And when the full weight of it arrived, it began with a real elbow in the solar plexus and moved on to the most dramatically held ritard and wild kettledrum crescendo I have yet heard. Every moment from there to the end seethed with drama. The famous “Beethoven Fifth” references hammered at the listener as I have seldom heard them.

After all this excitement, the slow movement was serene. And the third movement’s central section was so lively, I was half reminded of the ebullient spirit to be found in the “Academic Festival Overture.”

The finale was an unusual triumph. Creepy pizzicati in the introduction, which lead to the great melody, were played almost like a movement of their own, slow and virtually inaudible at the start, and then somehow plucking so hard as they sped up, you felt as though the orchestra were snapping your belt and dangling you from it! The horns also covered themselves with glory in the introduction and, it should be said, throughout, interweaving with each other as much as with the rest of the orchestra. This is an ensemble which listens to itself as it plays; indeed, that is the key to aliveness in music-making. The symphony concluded in a frenzy of power, and the audience responded, as you might imagine, with a frenzy of its own.

It was a joy to have seen the orchestra and Iván Fischer interact. Sitting above the players in the second half, one could feel how much conductor and musicians have meant to each other over the years. This is no mere Music Director with a contract – sharing a post with a Principal Guest Conductor from an opposing philosophy and daring to hope for five or ten good years on the podium. This is his baby, and sometimes Fischer almost stops conducting, especially in the loudest passages, as if to say with parental pride, “You see, they don’t even need me any more.”

Given the palpable sense with this orchestra that one is witnessing a family and its hospitality, it was doubly touching to see the way the evening ended. The musicians still had one small piece of sheet music remaining on their stands, as the applause continued. So I expected an encore – a Hungarian Dance, perhaps. But instead, the players stood up with their sheet music, collected into a closer group around the podium, and brought the evening to a close with a gentle and touching performance of Brahms’ Evening Serenade, delivered mysteriously with all the refinement of a professional chorus. There was something about the soft purr of voices with which it ended, which suggested a “gentle good night.”

And it was.

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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