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March 30, 2010

Fischer's Beethoven

Last week Ivan Fischer, a noted Hungarian conductor, led the two orchestras with which he is connected--the Orchestra for the Age of Enlightenment, a period-instrument group based in London, and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which he founded--in all nine of Beethoven's symphonies. I missed the first night of the four-day event (which was part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series) because I had to go hear Christian Tetzlaff play Tchaikovsky's violin concerto at Carnegie Hall; it is a rule of mine never to miss a Tetzlaff performance, and in this case it proved to be a very good rule. But I got to see the remaining three Beethoven concerts, two of them in the gorgeously remodeled Alice Tully Hall, and it was a stellar experience.

Alice Tully is just the right size for a period-instrument orchestra, and the performance of Beethoven's Fifth, in particular, was the kind of thrilling event that sends audiences beaming out into the streets. With his period-instrument group, Fischer went all out--that is, it was impossible for those instruments to play too loudly, and so he revved them up with all the physical gestures in his conducting repertoire. (And there are a lot of them. Fischer is the most physically active conductor I've ever seen, in a good way: he moves with the rhythmic exactitude of a good dancer, and every limb, every feature, has a wild precision all its own.)

This was good--better than good--but the modern-era instruments turned out to be, if anything, even better. The Budapest Festival Orchestra is one of the great ensembles in the world (who knew?), and their Beethoven, while recognizably the thing itself, is like no one else's. They can modulate the dynamics to within an inch of their life, so that you ride the waves of Beethoven's sound up and down without ever getting tired of it. The performances of the Seventh Symphony on Saturday and the Sixth on Sunday were both revelatory. But what crowned the whole series was the final performance in Avery Fisher Hall, Beethoven's Ninth, which Fischer had organized with a showman's sense of staging. The four soloists were sprinkled among the orchestra members, hidden until they stood up to sing; the percussionist was front-and-center, and the "little village band" of triangle, cymbals, drum, and piccolo was arranged in a foursome in the rear-left corner; and--best of all--the huge chorus of male and female singers was seated in three rows of folding chairs at the front of the audience, in the space just before the stage. Only when they rose to sing their part did they turn to face us, like flowers opening out all at once: the sound was amazing, but so was the sight of all these revealed human faces.

March 30, 2010 8:22 AM | | Comments (2)


"Only when they rose to sing their part did they turn to face us, like flowers opening out all at once: the sound was amazing, but so was the sight of all these revealed human faces. "
wonderful line,
fine review, thanks, etc. L.V.

Thanks, Wendy. For a perspective from one of the "flowers" in front of the stage Sunday afternoon, see my blog post about the concert here. Iván Fischer's placement of us in front (a last-minute, but brilliant decision) gave us a rare chance to connect with the audience. The human faces we saw when we turned to sing were inspiring.

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