United Kingdom Mahler: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Adám Fischer (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 20.2.2019. (AS)
Mahler – Symphony No.9
Adám Fischer is a highly experienced conductor who made his early mark in the music of Haydn and then Mozart. Though he has conducted Ring cycles at Bayreuth and has performed (and recorded) a Mahler symphony cycle with his present orchestra, the Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra, his is not perhaps a name you might associate with a high-level foreign tour by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Almost needless to say, however, this concert at the Barbican was a sell-out.
Since its earlier days as Mahler’s orchestra, and since the 1950s the orchestra has changed out of all recognition and presents a completely different sound from what one hears in recordings from the LP era. Woodwind in particular have lost – if that is the right word – the characteristic, rather cutting-edge Viennese sound of yore. And there has been one development that must be to the good: the men-only rule has been abandoned, and the orchestra contains several women, most of them young.
Fischer conducted the work from memory, but as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell might say, that is no guarantee of respectability. Surprisingly for a Haydn conductor, his beat, if it might be called that, is unclear, especially the down beat. He tends to make gestures, in particular a kind of lunge at the orchestra, as if he were making an assault on the players. In the first movement he encouraged wide variations of tempo, which is fine if there is a basic underlying rhythmic pulse on which those variations are built. In Fischer’s case this was difficult to discern, and as a result the long movement didn’t hang together as it should. Generally, the playing was very fine, as one would expect of this great ensemble in repertoire it knows so well, but there were passages of confused sound to the point of incoherence, and inexact ensemble, brought about by Fischer’s unclear, somewhat histrionic direction.
The basic tempo of the second movement was a little too fast: it wasn’t a slow waltz Ländler tempo, and so we rather lost the deliberately offbeat, quirky nature of the music. Paradoxically, the rhythms were too emphatic; there were no dance-like elements involved. Excessive tempo fluctuations added to the already episodic nature of the music, with the faster waltz interruption rather exaggerated.
Similar problems were evident in the third movement, again taken too quickly, with a lack of rhythmic grounding. Fischer’s conducting became increasingly agitated towards the end of the movement, rather more than was desirable, and the actual end was mere frenzied noise.
In the last movement matters became much better. If the Vienna Philharmonic sound has changed in many ways, one characteristic is preserved. At the beginning of the movement, and indeed throughout it, the string sound was outstandingly beautiful – warm and deeply sonorous, notably in the middle and bass lines, and peculiarly Viennese in a way that is difficult to describe. Here Fischer steered a much more consistent course through the music: tension was well maintained, and there was a new sense of strength in the music-making. The big climax towards the end was well-managed, and the quiet ending reached heights of communication that hadn’t been achieved before.