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Musical chairs

One of the most marvelous things about Iván Fischer and this orchestra is that you get the sense that nothing is taken for granted; these musicians carefully consider every phrase and gesture, every aspect of their music making.  This quality was present in abundance last night, starting with where the players sat.

For Bartók’s Hungarian Peasant Songs, the first rows (in a semicircle around the conductor) were occupied not by strings, but by woodwinds on the left and brass on the right.  Behind this semicircle, the strings were arrayed on risers, and they stood while playing the entire 10-minute work.  It’s not as well known as Bartók’s other folk-tune medleys (such as the Hungarian Sketches), and to be honest, it’s not as memorable.  But it gave a good representation of Bartók’s inimitable touches of orchestration.  In the two-semicircle seating arrangement, the woodwinds and strings were evenly balanced, though the cellos were less prominent than usual.  This allowed Bartók’s piquant woodwind writing to come to the fore.

Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto can sound like a relentless, banging barrage of noise alternating with unearthly stillness, but András Schiff took a completely different approach from the opening onward, shaping and adding hesitations to phrases that are usually played in a machine-gun manner.  The orchestra’s two-semicircle seating was ideally suited to the piece; strings are silent in the first movement, woodwinds and brass in the second.  In the second movement, the strings played with a remarkably hushed and veiled tone, with no hint of treble edginess.  In the first and third movements, the brass played with unusual color and variety of timbre, doing justice to Bartók’s slashing interjections and bizarre tone clusters.  At one point in the second movement Schiff shushed some annoying coughers; nevertheless he obliged his audience with two encores: Schubert’s E-flat impromptu and his Hungarian Melody (D. 817), delivered with equal measures of pinpoint precision and flowing line.

For the Schubert symphony, Fischer and the BFO shuffled seats again.  The front desks were occupied not by the string section leaders, but by the woodwinds: left to right, oboes, flutes, bassoons, and clarinets.  Behind them, the first and second violins were divided with the cellos and violas between them (standard Central European practice).  And behind the strings, the brasses sat where you’d normally find the woodwinds.  Finally, the six double basses and timpani were arrayed in a line across the center rear of the stage.  The rear wings–usually occupied by brass and double basses–were empty.  I’ve never seen anything like this (and am not aware of any historical precedent).

This meant that the core of the sound – much of the midrange and all of the bass – came from the center of the stage, while almost all the sound from the wings came from the violins.  Antiphonal exchanges between the firsts and seconds were even clearer than usual with the divided violins pattern, because there were no brass or double basses behind them.  Woodwind solos were more prominent than usual, though this effect was most pronounced for the clarinets.  On the other hand, because all the bass was coming from the center, and only treble from the left or right, I missed the sense of a wall of sound, from treble down to bass, that I get from more conventional seating patterns.  I was enveloped by violins, not by the whole orchestra.  (We were sitting dead center at orchestra level.)

This was no accident–the virtues of clarity in inner lines and balance between sections were part of Fischer’s overall conception of the piece.  Tempos were moderate, with the sort of subtle, perfectly calibrated flexibility in tempo that refuses to draw attention to itself.  Fischer held back the brass and timpani until the true apex of each movement’s climax; the edgy, salty tone of the brass in the Bartók pieces was almost entirely absent, replaced by a warm blend.  Though the timpanist was using hard sticks, he did not play in the pointillist, rapid-fire manner favored by some percussionists on period instruments.  Nothing was allowed to draw attention to itself.

Amanda said it best: the interpretation was incredibly creative, with many liberties, but none that could be notated, none that could be written down in any way.

As a result, this was a completely different performance than any other we know, from any tradition.  Historically informed performers (such as Mackerras on Virgin or Norrington on EMI) rely not just upon clarity, but the bracing, acerbic textures of their old instruments.  (While the BFO horn players sometimes use natural horns, they did not at this concert.)  On the other hand, interpreters from earlier generations, such as Furtwängler, Karajan, or Knappertsbusch, can make this piece sound like Bruckner or Wagner, with weighty tempos and hefty brasses perfectly suited for Siegfried’s funeral march.  There’s also the virtuoso full-orchestra approach of Solti and others, who employ massive sonorities but also fast tempi.

Fischer refused to embrace any of these approaches, and I imagine some might have been disappointed by the lack of weight.  But for us, any loss in sheer heft or force was more than balanced by the constantly rejuvenated energy in the playing.  Fischer’s supple and expressive baton technique had something to do with this; he seems to infuse the phrasing with new bursts of energy in every bar.  The performance was marvelously alive, with momentum seemingly drawn from within, not imposed through arbitrary distortion.

Fischer and the BFO have recently released a recording; though the sound on the recording is a bit fuller than what we heard in the hall, the interpretation is substantially the same – a genuinely fresh take on one of the pieces we love most.

The Highly Opinionated Companion, thousandfold echo (blog)