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.
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.