Beethoven’s human voice

Albert ImperatoFri 26th March 2010
Iván Fischer finds Beethoven's human voice (photo: Budapest Festival Orchestra)Iván Fischer finds Beethoven's human voice (photo: Budapest Festival Orchestra)

Iván Fischer begins symphony cycle in NYC

I’ve known Iván Fischer and his work a long while, since the days when I worked at PolyGram/Universal and he recorded for their Philips label. We got back in touch a few years after I co-founded 21C Media Group, and our company has worked over the past several seasons promoting his work in America, particularly his touring activities with the Budapest Festival Orchestra (BFO), which he founded just over 25 years ago. He is currently in his second season as Principal Conductor of Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra, and I heard him conduct Mahler’s Second and Third Symphonies with them in a way that I’ll never forget.  

Tonight Fischer came to New York to begin a four-day Beethoven festival at Lincoln Center. The catch: he’s playing some of the nine with the BFO and some with the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment (OAE). The premise is simple:  to illustrate the ways the way that period and modern instrument performances of Beethoven have influenced each other, and imagine how these influences might impact Beethoven performances in the future.

On the program tonight at Alice Tully Hall were Beethoven’s Second and Third Symphonies with Fischer leading the OAE. The place was packed.  And the applause after each symphony (including a quick standing ovation after the “Eroica”) was lusty. It’s the perfect program to hear Beethoven take the giant step from the smaller proportions and more symmetrical language of his “classical” style into the vaster expanse of the more romantic style he pioneered. 

All of the qualities I’ve heard in his gloriously eloquent Mahler performances and recordings were present in tonight’s Beethoven performances. If I were to distill the essence of Fischer’s art into a short tagline I’d say that Fischer’s has the gift of storytelling. The notes on the page are given such thorough consideration by Fischer, and he communicates his wishes so clearly to the orchestra, that all of the music’s expressive possibilities are set free. I’ve heard period instrument Beethoven performances that focus so much on quick tempi and crisp articulation to create visceral excitement that much of the joy, wit and vulnerability in the music is left behind. Not so with Fischer. He has a flexible conducting style that is his arms have an almost rubbery quality, bending in all kinds of ways depending on the sound he’s after. Yet the beat is remarkably clear and precise. I’m sure the players get plenty of cues on what to do simply from reading Fischer’s face, from the smiles and grimaces to the big, soulful eyes.

One of the highlights for me tonight was the truly magnificent work by the horns, who played both with incredible accuracy and wonderful fullness of tone. In the hunting episodes of the “Eroica’s” scherzo they were fleet and frothy; in the climaxes of the tragic second movement, and especially in the big moments of the finale, they rang out gloriously. The audience applauded loudly for them at the end when Fischer singled them out for a bow.

A funny moment in the Second Symphony reminded me what I love most about Fischer’s conducting, which I’ve already mentioned above. At the very end of the bouncy third movement, Fischer snapped the page of the score so briskly and loudly that the audience let out a laugh. But what popped in my mind was a the thought of how a great actor might do such a thing as he or she neared the final section of a story, turning a specific page with a snap as if to say, “Okay, if you’ve liked what you’ve heard thus far, you’re going to really love the way this story ends.”  For me, a Fischer performance is all about storytelling. Instead of reading words on a page, he’s reading notes of music on a page, and what came out tonight was Beethoven’s voice in all its humanity.

Fischer was sipping champagne with the musicians backstage and chatting with Jane Moss, Lincoln Center’s Vice-President of Programming, when my colleague Philip Wilder and I finally found him. He was smiling like a proud parent and praising the playing of the musicians. “They played with much character tonight!” he told me. When I mentioned the big snap he made turning that page of the score in the Second Symphony, he told me that the musicians had pointed it out to him but that he didn’t remember doing it.  

Fischer says in his special note in the program book, “I hope that our Beethoven: Then and Now cycle will be on step in the direction of Beethoven Soon, in the not-too-distant, future, when orchestras (playing on any kind of instruments) will combine their experiences, balancing intellect with intuition and tradition with historical discoveries, in order to develop a higher understanding of Beethoven’s unique art.” Hearing Beethoven’s human voice speaking tonight in the music -making, I’d say Fischer is well on his way to achieving these goals.

Fischer’s Beethoven Symphonies cycle continues March 26, 27 and 28 at Lincoln Center

Postscript: completely un-related to this post, but something you should treat yourself to as the perfect way to end a busy week, listen to Chanticleer (another client of our company) sing Biebel’s sublime and stunning “Ave Maria” with the US Naval Academy Men's Glee Club.

Albert Imperato

Albert Imperato is co-founder of 21C Media Group, a classical music and performing arts PR, marketing and consulting firm. His on-line journal gives a window into the New York music world, as seen through the eyes of a leading PR guru.

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