Iván Fischer conducted Beethoven for 2,000 young people: “This is music that scares you!”

He has been a regular player in the Concertgebouw for decades. And yet a concert conducted by the Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer (71) is always surprising – in sound, structure or both. Last season, after 35 years of collaboration, Fischer became ‘honorary guest conductor’ of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. About 40 years ago he founded his own Budapest Festival Orchesta in Budapest as a testing ground for experiments. This weekend offered the unique opportunity to listen to him on two successive evenings with both orchestras – and then also twice in Beethoven.

It was a tasting with fair starting qualifications. Both top orchestras are (with Fischer) tried and tested in Beethoven. In Amsterdam the entire symphony cycle was sounded live, with Budapest Fischer recorded them.

meaty applause

Beethoven’s Fifth sounded on Friday in the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s masterpiece series ‘Essentials’ in front of a packed hall. The average age was around thirty, at least one generation younger than normal – if not two. Even the applause sounded different; meatier. But that was just the beginning of the surprises.

Fischer, a pedigree educator who also speaks Dutch fluently through a previous marriage, seized the opportunity to guide the audience through Beethoven’s symphonic development with charming lay talks.

How shocking are those tragic opening notes of the Fifth (ta-ta-ta-taaa!!) actually? You got it after the orchestra played the opening passages of the four preceding symphonies in a flash – with Fischer as commentator. “I know many people who always feel rushed,” he said of the first part (two thousand sighs of recognition). “This music is about that. She beats us! You now get music that scares you.”

The performance was excellent; clear, carried-out lilting in the ‘Andante’ (“Listen now to Beethoven’s soul…”) and gossamer polyphony at the joyful conclusion, with a stately, late rise of the trombones as an extra effect.

Orchestral fraternization

One drawback: because of the speeches you missed the larger-scale ecstasy that Third Symphony Saturday was realized by the Budapest Festival Orchestra (BFO). There were two carefully chosen appetizers: Louis Andriessens in democratic anti-aesthetic, which seems a bit dated Workers Union (1975) and Mozart’s heavily played Concerto for Two Pianos with Arthur and Lucas Jussen, which garnered even more acclaim for the Fledermaus-fantasy; an extremely successful encore, also in the tour that will follow, sponsored by the Dutch embassy.

Now the comparison could begin. Of course, music is not a competition, but when do you hear one conductor perform Beethoven with two orchestras?

Observation one: the BFO has something endearingly unruly. In the opening movement of Beethoven’s Third the scales still remained closed, although the transparency of the fast string figures aroused admiration here too. But it got much better. The sound of the double bass group, arranged in the center back, was unheard of, but of a velvety feel that caressed the ears all the way to the back of the hall. Also striking: swelling figures in the strings hung deep in the string. That characteristic and the fierce timbre of the horn group made the ‘Scherzo’ a sensual pleasure. At the very end, the BFO sections were reinforced by 17 Concertgebouw Orchestra musicians. The music didn’t need it, but the effect was nevertheless spectacular.

The reverse stunt will follow in Budapest next week: Hungarian musicians will then join the Concertgebouw Orchestra. After that, we have to wait for even more musical fraternization for Fischer’s return in February; then you can sit in the orchestra as a listener, shoulder to shoulder with the musicians.

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