Classical Review: Fischer the king

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The Independent Culture

THE RAPTUROUS furore that broke out at the close of Wednesday's Royal Festival Hall concert with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was heartening confirmation that, even after nearly 200 years and with a history of musical baggage to contend with, Beethoven's Fifth continues to deliver.

Ivan Fischer had released a torrent of orchestral excitement, speeding recklessly through the final bars much as Wilhelm Furtwangler had done 50 or so years earlier. How heartening that the scholarly strictures that had for so long barred "subjective" interpretation from period-instrument readings have lifted, and that nowadays, the opportunity of hearing conductors as different as Harnoncourt, Norrington, Bruggen, Gardiner and Fischer runs parallel with the choice of interpretative styles in modern-instrument performances.

Fischer is a gifted orchestral trainer, someone who knows how to inspire spontaneity and meaningful instrumental interchanges. He also knows how to phrase, and Wednesday's reading of Beethoven's Second Symphony displayed many examples of his skill. One in particular occurs at the beginning of the middle section of the third movement, where Beethoven asks for the second string chord to be played with extra force but nearly everyone ignores him. Fischer took the cue to intensify the drama, not only for that passage, but for the 30-odd bars that follow.

Another key episode occurs towards the end of the finale, where an extended loud chord stops suddenly, only to find the string bands hopping quietly away as if nothing had happened. Fischer appreciated the joke and his mastery of pauses - an urgent consideration in this of all Beethoven symphonies - lifted his interpretation on to an elevated plane.

Prior to the Fifth Symphony, American soprano Christine Brewer was a compelling "woman scorned" in Beethoven's concert aria Ah! Perfido, powerful music superbly sung and with yet more telling solos from the orchestra (ie the solo clarinet prior to the words "Spare his heart, strike mine instead"). Fischer opened the Fifth Symphony forcefully, though he didn't rush. Speeding was reserved until later on in the movement, especially the closing pages where the clinching argument was given its head. Basses were ruggedly assertive in the scherzo (though they rather failed to project in the second movement) and the triumphant finale was played with its all-important repeat intact.

You could tell that Fischer had thoroughly rethought the piece. Even the calming string tune that enters "quietly and sweetly" after the Symphony's dramatic opening sounded fresh-minted.