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Prom 52_CR_BBC Chris Christodoulou_1

Source: bachtrack.com; by Gavin Dixon

Warm strings, rounded phrases, a stately swagger: when it comes to Brahms, Iván Fischer knows exactly what he likes. These performances were all about the moment – the lingering clarinet solo, the swooning string refrain. They were relaxed and comfortable, though never complacent. The structure was there, though there was little sense of rigour. For those of us who like a bit of drama and bite to their Brahms, this could all seem a disappointment. Fortunately, Fischer and his orchestra were able to produce performances of such elegance and compelling beauty that it was difficult to object: His vision may be idiosyncratic, but he’s a persuasive advocate.

The Third Symphony can often sound austere, its tightly woven orchestral textures overpowering the continual melodic impulses. Not so here. Fischer carefully shaped the opening violin phrase, giving absolute priority to this opening melody, and sculpting the music’s textures around its shape. In the development he dropped the pretence of absolute clarity, allowing the inner workings of the orchestral textures to increase the density and intrigue. Fischer’s greatest indulgences came in the second movement, where he regularly interupted the flow of the music to bring out the expressive violin phrases, shaping them with a rubato that cut across all the established tempos: extreme intervention to highlight moments of great beauty, a risk he always seemed to get away with.

The Fourth Symphony has a tighter internal logic and a greater sense of intrinsic drama, but that didn’t stop Fischer from presenting it in much the same way. Again, the greatest indulgences came in the second movement, where time was regularly suspended for the sake of some expressive detail, an elegant string phrase, or a few bars of intricate woodwind ensemble. Both the third and fourth movements were afforded some of the drama that the concert up until then had lacked. Fischer never broke into a sweat though, and even when the music was more driven, it still felt very much under his calm control. And in the finale, the serene elegance of the chorales always took precedence over the faster textures that accompany them and link them together.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is clearly Iván Fischer’s orchestra, the players hand-picked and rigorously trained to present the music as he envisages it. So, the strings are at their strongest in those arching, mezzo-forte phrases, which they present with magnificent warmth and depth. They are weaker in the more incisive music, where hard accents can be sloppy and louder dynamics can lead to intonation problems. A particularly gratifying aspect of Fischer’s Brahms is his focus on the mid-range woodwinds, all the counterpoint and hocket textures that support developments and transitions. His players are particularly strong here, needing little encouragement from the podium.

And one last surprise from Fischer and his orchestra: after the Fourth Symphony, the players regrouped – as a choir! For an encore we heard Brahms’ part-song Abendständchen (Evening Serenade) – not a brilliant performance but a brilliant piece of theatre, and a surprising end to an evening filled with surprises.

Photo: Chris Christodoulou