CD Review: Iván Fischer’s Elegant, Emotionally Reserved Brahms 4

(Courtesy of Channel Classics)

Brahms Symphony No. 4 and Hungarian Dances No. 3, 7 & 11. Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer. Channel Classics.

Making the classics sound new has become the calling card of Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Over the past three decades, Fischer has shaped the orchestra he co-founded and leads as music director into an ensemble dedicated to vibrant musicianship and restless experimentation within the Central European tradition. Each concert, and each new recording, is an event. But what is left to be said or discovered in yet another recorded cycle of Brahms’s symphonies?

The answer, it turns out, lies in the details. This third installment in Fischer’s ongoing Brahms cycle, which couples the Fourth Symphony with a selection of colorful and idiomatic Hungarian Dances, offers uncommon illumination. Enforcing light and transparent orchestral textures, Fischer brings out the inner aspects of the score often left hidden by Brahms’s dense, polyphonic writing: the flutes playing in canon with the opening violin melody, or the intricacies of Brahms’s cross-rhythms. (One detail that is over-magnified by the recording engineers is the triangle, whose close-miking mars an otherwise delightful Scherzo.)

Fischer leads a classically proportioned reading of Brahms’s elegiac symphony, adopting moderate tempos and maintaining a sense of poise and emotional reserve. In place of imposing power, Fischer offers an attention to musical detail that is meticulous but never fussy or mannered.  This approach pays dividends by heightening the mystery of the dreamy sotto voce passages of the opening movement and imposing restraint on the sentimentality of the slow movement.

Yet there are limitations to Fischer’s musical approach and artistic temperament, which often leads him to pull back from emotional extremes. The wistful opening movement never quite takes on enough urgency and drama as it reaches its grim conclusion. In the concluding passacaglia, Fischer adopts a flexible beat and hauntingly draws out the desolate flute solo and the gorgeous brass chorale. Yet the movement lacks a sense of driving energy and ferocity, falling short of expressing the full, cataclysmic weight of tragedy.

For a recording that better captures Brahms’s expressive extremes, listeners should turn to the hard-driven drama of Carlos Kleiber; the weighty, thrilling power of Otto Klemperer; the tension and energy of Günter Wand; or, best of all, the searing intensity of the peerless Wilhelm Furtwängler. The old masters still reign supreme in Brahms.

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