in: Reviews

October 17, 2014

Fischer and Buchbinder Exhibit Fine Chemistry

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Thierry Fischer (Dominick Reuter photo)

Thierry Fischer (Dominick Reuter photo)

Thierry Fischer, the Swiss conductor who now leads the Utah Symphony, made his widely anticipated debut with the BSO at Symphony Hall Thursday, conducting works originally planned for the late Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. Consisting of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder as soloist (in only his second appearance here, after a nearly 30 year interval), and Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, the program jibed well with Fischer’s own tastes, reported in his interview here, as he has just come off a survey of all six Nielsen symphonies in Utah.

To a relatively sparsely populated hall, with a number of principal players missing all or part of the program, and with a seating arrangement different from recent times (cellos on the outside right rather than second violins or violas), Fischer loosed the rolling thunder that opens the Brahms D minor concerto, with appropriate éclat and the good offices of assistant tympanist Daniel Bauch. Brahms wrote very few pieces like this—raw, sprawling, rhapsodic. The massive first movement adheres to sonata form, but only just; it bears most of the scars of its long gestation and metamorphosis from sonata to symphony to concerto (other movements that Brahms originally wrote he discarded when he settled on the concerto format).

It took a while for Fischer and Buchbinder to get into the swing of this piece: the orchestra’s opening tempo was a bit sluggish (a slow reading of this work can take a really long time, despite there being only three movements—Glenn Gould’s (in)famous 1962 performance ran almost 57 minutes; it and Leonard Bernstein’s (in)famous disclaimer can be found here) and Buchbinder’s entrance (as with the Beethoven first concerto, not on the main theme but on a much gentler transitional passage) seemed somewhat stiff—many pianist offer more give and rubato here. The ballad-like second theme was also less flowing than we’d like. Both these concerns subsided, though, as the movement progressed. The tempo imperceptibly picked up, and Buchbinder unleashed enormous power in the development section, while Fischer admirably balanced yet upheld the orchestral forces in this most symphonic of concertos. He also commanded glowing string sonority, here and in the other movements, and brought the movement to a taut and powerful close.

As in his First Symphony, and indeed in many other works, Brahms focused particular attention on the horns for key emotional moments, the first of which occurs in the first movement and the most potent of which occurs at the climax of the second. As expected, the section performed brilliantly and James Sommerville was superb in the solos.

That slow movement began with a somewhat surprisingly Apollonian reading by Fischer, but it warmed into passionate intimacy in Buchbinder’s playing. One wonders—could suspensions ever be so poignant as Brahms made them here? And, as mentioned above, the climactic “O du!” phrase led by the horns and winds was the wrenching experience it was meant to be, and perhaps prompted Clara Schumann’s remark about this movement that there was more beauty in it than even Brahms knew was there. The fiery and extroverted finale went by with great verve (somehow, though, we wish Buchbinder had ended his phrases more crisply to match the orchestra’s briskness), and when the storm clouds parted (just as they were doing outdoors) with the final transition to D major, Fischer and Buchbinder raced to a brilliant finish and many rounds of curtain calls.

Carl Nielsen’s Fourth, the symphony that launched a thousand jokes (due to its subtitle, “The Inextinguishable,” as awkward in Danish as in English), is one of those super-earnest late Romantic conceptions that leaves more cynical moderns shaking their heads. Luckily, in the right hands, this can be an engaging and entertaining piece. While superficially suggesting the conflict of World War I (it was completed in 1916), it was conceived before the war began as a kind of “music is the life force” statement (please, no humming Barry Manilow out there). It is, for such a grand conception, surprisingly concise (which may partly account for its popularity among Nielsen works): four movements taken without pause, the whole thing running to maybe 35 minutes.

The first movement, like the Brahms concerto, also begins with a bolt from the blue, this more like the lightning streak than the rumbling aftermath. Fischer left no doubt that he was going to move forward briskly with this one. The opposition to the opening searing passage comes quickly enough, in the form of a second subject that becomes the motto tune for the whole work, a downward-spiraling chorale-like melody that has a family resemblance to the main theme of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. The exposition ends with a grand statement of this theme, and the development heads off with these two forces battling one another. Fischer exercised great command of dynamic and tempo contrasts, maintaining excellent tension and a strong sense of motivic interplay. The transition to the second movement displayed one of those thrilling moments where the timpani (both principal Timothy Genis and Bauch) are struck so softly that the hairs on one’s neck stand up. The second movement is a surprisingly genial folk-like intermezzo for winds, in which the entire BSO wind choir shone, but in which Fischer well pointed out the couple of spots where the motto motif poked its nose in.

Rudolf Buchbinder (Dominick Reuter photo)

Rudolf Buchbinder (Dominick Reuter photo)

The slow movement that followed began with an anguished tune, based on the motto, the performance of which was studded with well-executed staccato irruptions in the tympani and low strings. Eventually this theme broadens and softens, with some lovely string passages punctuated by an opulent solo by Associate Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova, before the central section gradually intrudes with brusque interruptions. This section climaxes with a big noise in the brass (which, becoming even more prominent in the finale, was another team triumph in this performance) before the more somber version of the principal theme returns. The finale begins as a fiddle-fest of brilliant counterpoint in all the strings (before the concert, we noticed principal contrabass Edwin Barker practicing this passage and shaking his head to say “wow, that’s tricky,” though in the event the execution was perfect), but soon gave way to a violent exchange between the two tympanists, one of the most striking features of this symphony. The response of the orchestra is another famous passage, a kind of blue-note chorale rendered glowingly, rendered by Fischer and the brass choir with creamy luxuriance. The second time the timpani erupt, in the coda, the answer is the full and ripe return of the motto theme, with which the work ends. It was an expert, skillful performance, definitely in the right hands.

See related interview here.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

4 Comments

  1. Nice review by Vance Koven…except I’d go much stronger. My best advice to any of you interested in great music-making is to run to the box office and snap up a ticket for one of these remaining concerts. It’s that good. Thursday night’s concert was exceptional. It was non-routine music-making at its best, with tremendous artists (Fischer and Rudolf Buchbinder), and the orchestra playing their hearts out. In what has already been a very strong start to the season (this is my third concert), this has been the best performance yet.

    To put it simply, Rudolph Buchbinder is one of the finest pianists out there. I first heard him when he was in Boston performing the Beethoven Piano Concerto #1 with the Staatskapelle Dresden on tour, and his performance of that relatively uninteresting work (to me at least) was mesmerizing. He had me on the edge of my seat. There is such musicality to his piano playing, with formidable technique, but above all else, there’s great poetry in his playing. How someone of his stature could take a work like that which he’s played hundreds of times, and turn it into an endlessly engrossing performance, was staggering.

    Last night he was even better than when he was playing with the Staatskapelle (6-7 years ago?). He can produce a big sound that’s still completely elegant, and he has amazing projection even at the softest of volumes. Buchbinder brings such refinement and sensitivity to his playing, and is completely inside the music at all times. I was blown away by it. From two performances I’ve heard of him live, I would put him in the highest distinction of living pianists–a very small club that includes Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman, Evgeny Kissin, and Yefim Bronfman. I hope we hear a LOT more of Rudolf Buchbinder in Boston. He’s really special and it was a joy to hear him last night.

    And huge kudos also must go to Thierry Fischer. He’s clearly a serious musician and really brought out an outstanding performance from the BSO. Yes, there was some untidiness at times during the first movement of the Brahms, but I’m sure that will be quickly ironed out, and it took away nothing from such incredible music-making. Fischer seems like the real deal. His ability to get the BSO to play with such incredible balance and sensitivity, with a true piannisimo, was distinctive. They seemed to very much respect him and seemed to give him what he wanted. It was truly a great, great concert.

    Memo to the BSO: Please quickly get Thierry Fischer and Rudolf Buchbinder on the schedule for future performances. Buchbinder is an artist of the highest caliber, and Fischer (off of a sample of one concert) seems like a substantive, thoughtful, and highly impressive conductor. More, more!!

    Comment by Mogulmeister — October 17, 2014 at 6:39 pm

  2. I had an excellent view of Buchbinder’s hands. The double-octave trills in the first movement made my hands hurt in sympathy.

    I think Buchbinder is a good Brahms pianist because he has some of Brahms’s character; a superficial stolidity that disguises a passionate nature, not always expressed. I don’t think he has the full measure of virtuosic panache to give a truly memorable performance of this concerto, but he gave a very good one, with many beautiful passages, particularly in the second movement, and some brilliant tone and clever, quick phrasing in the third.

    I’m glad to hear that the reviewer thought the orchestra started off slowly, because that was my impression; I wasn’t sure whether it was my ears or their playing that was warming up. At any rate. I thought that they, and Fischer, were at their best in the Nielsen, which got a fully committed and revealing performance.

    Comment by SamW — October 18, 2014 at 12:08 pm

  3. having been immersed in mundane matters, I had to wait longer to post my thoughts, which I hd gathered immediately after the concert.

    The collaboration between the two parties was not so smooth, somewhat as expected in a live concert. That was the overall impression. But I want to put my remarks on the music line of the 1st movement. Before the piano plays, the orchestra have to play the dark intimidating theme twice. The 2nd time comes with power build-up and positive elements. BSO and the conductor failed to make it heavier before the piano entered, thus failing to bring the audience stronger contrast. The piano has to make a clear statement of his character. In my mind, an ideal performance would play the 1st sentence at 2 different speeds, 1st half slower and 2nd half faster with high clarity (make it sound like high pitch) to highlight Brahms’ music character, with certain grievance and yet unyielding. This is all over Brahms’ compositions. One example is the 2nd quartet, even though the opening is much longer. and try to remember the image of its closing in the movement too. Many piano players on CD were not convincing and Mr. Buchbinder was not better. He played in a hasty way, emotionally making no connection with the orchestra’s intro. The very same melody was reinforced by the 1st violin later, midway of the movement. I’d say not very strong play there. The coda is a variation of that. Again I did not feel the connection.
    Music has to be played sufficiently, otherwise the emotion will never build up to high level.

    Comment by Thorsten — October 27, 2014 at 8:44 pm

  4. This is a very interesting analysis. I could hear the music while reading the description of the beginning of the first movement, and the description of Brahms’ character in this music as “certain grievance and yet unyielding” is very accurate. I see how the second statement of the opening theme has to become stronger and perhaps noisier to allow the piano to enter with quiet authority. I am not sure if playing it faster is the best way to do it, but it needs to be done somehow. This makes me want to go and listen to some recordings; I’m going to check out how George Szell and Clifford Curzon do it.

    Comment by SamW — October 28, 2014 at 9:14 am

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