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Conductor Ivan Fischer’s melodic return

Iván Fischer is the finest conductor of our day. There, I said it. While much of the classical music world has become obsessed with a photogenic young conductor (and his naturally curly hair) in Los Angeles, the balding and low key Fischer doesn’t move the needle on the glamour meter. Gustavo Dudamel looks like a rock star, Fischer looks like Dudamel’s accountant.

But Fischer is also one of the most thrilling conductors on the scene as proven in concert and on any one of his brilliant recordings for the Channel Classics label.

Last week, at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, Fischer directed his own staging of Mozart’s Don Giovanni with his Budapest Festival Orchestra. This week he conducted the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in an all-Mozart program that featured two choral works – Ave verum corpus and Vesperae solennes de confessore – and the “Jupiter” Symphony.

Fischer blows me away when he takes a mainstream work, a Mozart symphony or Rossini overture, and gently tweaks the dynamics or stretches a tempo so you hear the work anew. Don Giovanni was filled with revelations. The Commendatore’s death scene, that amazing trio for three low voices that’s too often a throw-away in average productions, sounded eerie and strikingly modern. Fischer also had valveless period brass instruments in the orchestra, a daring move that made the finale less about volume and more about drama. A pretty damned scary drama at that.

I knew the Budapest Festival Orchestra would be brilliant, but was curious to hear how Fischer would fare with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra and the Concert Chorale of New York. The Ave verum corpus seemed to unfold in one long arching phrase, a beautiful performance of a mini-masterpiece. Rather than break before the next piece, the “Jupiter” Symphony, organist Kent Tritle played an improvisation. But more about the “Jupiter” in a bit.

In the Vesperae solennes de confessore, the concert-closer, Fischer had the antiphons before each section chanted. It didn’t add much to the performance and it would have been interesting to know the liturgical significance of the chants, but I commend Fischer’s courage in shuffling up the deck a bit. I think the only reason the piece remains in the repertoire is because of the Laudate Dominum, one of Mozart’s most gorgeous soprano arias. The English soprano Lucy Crowe, making her festival debut, was marvelous. Crowe has been on quite a roll with some high profile performances here and abroad and I can’t wait for her Handel album to be released by Harmonia Mundi in November.

The “Jupiter” was the high point of the evening. The orchestra played with a warmth and precision, pretty impressive considering they probably didn’t have much rehearsal time with the conductor. Fischer’s reading had plenty of weight but also danced with lithe athleticism. In the film Manhattan, Woody Allen referenced the second movement of the symphony as one of things that make life worth living. But for me it’s the finale. I feel comfort in the perfection of Mozart’s contrapuntal writing in the finale – it convinces me that the cosmos is in order. Fischer and the orchestra communicated that beautifully and, for some reason, I left Avery Fisher Hall thinking of the quote from Julian of Norwich, “And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Everything did seem just right.

Craig Zeichner, Ariama.com (classical music blog)