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Ivan FischerPhoto: Marco Borggreve

Luke’s, Iván Fischer (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 21.11.13 (DA) (http://seenandheard-international.com/)

Weiner: Serenade for Small Orchestra, Op.3

Schumann: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op.54

Bartók: Hungarian Sketches

Mozart: Symphony No.41 in C Major, K.551

Léo Weiner’s Serenade for Small Orchestra waited over a century for its first performance at Carnegie Hall. Reunited this season once again, Iván Fischer and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s gave this flabbily conservative work a good hearing. Written in 1906, it comes in four movements, the first of which sounds for six minutes like one of Dvořák’s transition passages, albeit more buoyantly scored and with added mitteleuropäisch lilt. The OSL-the only orchestra I have ever heard tune a G before the traditional A-had trouble staying together in the rhythmically slippery second movement, but in the recitative-like third the principal clarinet and bassoon took their solos gracefully. An exuberantly swashbuckling finale rounded things off, although again orchestral precision was rather lacking.

Fischer is never anything less than intriguing in the canon, although he occasionally tends towards the mannered (but rarely beyond). Paired with the intellectually inquisitive pianist Jonathan Biss for Schumann’s old warhorse, Fischer proved relentlessly inventive. Less so Biss, whose solo passages were gently phrased, possessing just the right amount of unexpected twists. Fischer drew supremely communicative playing from the OSL, but seemed to have a few too many ideas going on at once. Especially in the central intermezzo, there was a wonderful sense of collective exploration between pianist, conductor, and orchestra, a stream of question-and-answer and question again. In the finale, though, Fischer’s constant recasting simply felt unnerving. Biss, meanwhile, continued sensitively and attentively on, elucidating structure with uncommon insight.

A more successful performance came after the interval, with Bartók’s brief Hungarian Sketches. Infused with folk tunes without becoming folksy, these five vignettes looked back to the Weiner even if their soundworld was more clearly dissonant. Bartók’s sketches are full of energy, whether explicitly so in the Bear’s Dance, or more implicitly, as in the central ‘Melódia.’ Fischer and the OSL were at their best here, and Bartók’s music benefitted from a clarity and precision lacking in the rest of the evening’s performances.

It would be easy to harp on about the period instrument movement’s effects on Mozart-often that would be justified-but Fischer’s treatment of the composer’s last and greatest symphony was so inventive, stepping so far beyond any kind of performing tradition, however pernicious, that there would be little point. It started as if grandly announcing an evening at the opera, music and audience uniting in chatty phrasing. The first movement never settled down, although that insatiable animation brought the fugal development to life. Insistent inner parts corkscrewed like Mannheim rockets careening into the sky. The glorious slow movement was a bit fidgety, but retained a darkness uncommonly found in Mozart’s music, a product no doubt of arranging the double basses (only four) across the rear of the hall, and allowing them, like Furtwängler-lite, to anticipate the beat. Chiaroscuro continued to focus on shadow even in the menuet, which was taken with an ominous weight. Finally, a festive conclusion was delivered with a spectacular vim, sounding as radical as Beethoven in the way it found unity from diversity.

David Allen