Many people with respected ears speak and write glowingly of Iván Fischer's work with the National Symphony Orchestra, but he has so far struck me as a conductor whose work is able and thorough but not necessarily inspired. As a result, it was not that much of a disappointment that the NSO did not lock up Fischer as its new music director (not that Christoph Eschenbach will necessarily fulfill my dreams either). In his current position as Principal Conductor, Fischer appears periodically to provide some stability to this somewhat anchor-less season. This past week, he led a program devoted to two major works by Bartók and Dvořák, heard on Friday evening.
Fischer/Budapest Festival Orchestra:
Bartók Orchestral Music (Box Set)
Dvořák, Sy. 8/9
The good part came first, a welcome performance of the Concerto for Orchestra by Fischer's fellow Hungarian Bartók. The concert started, uncharacteristically, quite late, with Fischer eventually appearing to speak about the work, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky and conducted by him at the premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1944. (By chance, Bartók's autograph score, in his punctiliously clean hand, was on display last night at the Library of Congress, which holds many of the scores commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation.) As intended, the performance focused attention on various sections of the orchestra, and soloists within those sections, and some sounded better than others. The opening in the strings was ethereal and glowing, the violin sound benefiting perhaps from Fischer's reseating of the section for this work (both sections of violins together on his left, violas in front of cellos on the right).
The brass were adamantine, bright, lustrous, and locked in tune, with only a few bad attacks in the horns. Fischer brought many of the stranger effects to the forefront, like the clatter and magic swoops of the harps and the murmur of string tremolos over the fingerboard. The interpretation was not showy, however, raising the middle section of the Elegia to an impassioned yowl but also gently smoothing out the jagged shifting meters of the fourth movement and carefully pacing the folk accelerandi. The performance, beyond capable and toward expert, showed the effects of targeted rehearsal, so that the large sounds amassed without distortion and then evaporated as needed in smaller sections and the articulation and balance were unified and even. That Fischer conducted without a score confirmed visually his long-term and profound familiarity with this most pleasing music.
The most meaningful part of Fischer's introductions to both halves was that he gently reminded the audience not to make too much noise between movements, when all too often the tuberculosis ward will start to cough up various lungs. It was a pleasure to hear basically uninterrupted silence in the breaks of the Bartók, where Fischer maintained that important transitions had to happen, requiring the musicians to concentrate.
Anne Midgette, Minus the Star Power, NSO Sparkles (Washington Post, February 6)
Fischer appears to be going backwards through the Dvořák cycle in his recording series with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, so he has not yet recorded the symphony presented here, no. 7, from 1884 to 1885. Fischer also conducted it from memory, but neither the interpretation or the execution crystallized as well as the Bartók had. The ensemble sound was not as clean, although it is not clear that it had anything to do with Fischer going back to the string arrangement that Leonard Slatkin had favored (violins in front on opposing sides, with cellos and violas behind). The third movement, especially, was a little discombobulated, with the cross-metrical shifts not feeling as natural as in the Bartók, although the trio had a pleasing restlessness in the constant trilling from the basses. Fischer's take on the fourth movement was broad and personal, as he seemed to manipulate the tempo beyond the marks in the score in the fourth movement. Perhaps with another listening, it would have made more sense.
The next set of concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra (February 19 to 21) are not to be missed: Charles Dutoit will conduct Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin and Stravinsky's Firebird, with fiery pianist Yuja Wang joining for Prokofiev's second concerto, guaranteed to burn the house down.