NPR FM Berlin Blog
2:23 pm
Mon December 5, 2011

Austro-Hungarian Nostalgie At The Berlin Philharmonic

Originally published on Mon December 5, 2011 2:10 pm

High expectations lie with Iván Fischer as he prepares to step in as music director of Berlin's Konzerthaus and principal conductor of the house orchestra next season.

In a guest appearance with the Berlin Philharmonic last weekend, the Budapest native explored his passion for the Austro-Hungarian tradition, which he cited as a main incentive for taking on the former East Berlin ensemble earlier this year.

"Our native language is the music of the Hapsburg Empire," he told the local press.

This heritage, of course, extends across the Brandenburger Tor to Potsdamer Platz, especially as the German capital returns to its roots as a cosmopolitan nexus of European culture.

Fischer, as seen at the Philharmonie on December 2, made a strong case for the music of Ernő Dohnányi, a little-known contemporary of Béla Bartók, who taught at Berlin's Hochschule für Musik before the outbreak of World War One.

The colorful, swirling instrumentation of the opening Capriccio in "Symphonische Minuten" Op.36 was punctuated with a chiming celeste that evoked a racing sleigh ride, made even more vivid through the orchestra's highly contoured phrasing.

Marrying Slavic grace with the rigor of the German Romantic tradition, passages of sinuous oboe obligato were echoed gracefully by clarinet, winds, harp, and dusky strings in the third Andante movement. Dohnányi's capacity for inventive, rich textures carried through into the final Rondo, which was lively and irreproachably on point. Fischer also brought a touch of fire to the ensemble.

A less compelling example of the Germanic influence on late Romantic Hungarian composers was provided by Jenő Hubay's Violin Concerto in g-minor. The heavy chords of the Brahmsian opening sounded fervent rather than fresh. While Hubay knew how to spin out a melody at least as well as his Nordic counterparts, his concerto verged on the long-winded.

It didn't help that soloist Daniel Stabrawa, also a concert master of the orchestra, suffered from intonation problems in the upper range and unevenness of tone well into the third movement. While his raw approach often served the feverish intensity of the music, cleaner arpeggiations would have been welcome.

Returning to a staple piece of symphonic repertoire, Franz Schubert's Fifth Symphony received a buoyant performance, although the orchestra's transparent sound seemed at odds with Fischer's sharp contrasts in dynamic shading. His unusual use of rubato in the third movement threatened to be somewhat jarring, although the elastic tempo lent the music a fittingly majestic quality.

Ushering in the symphony was the string arrangement of an early Schubert work, "Fünf Deutsche Tänze und sieben Trios mit Coda D 90." The dances, which the Viennese composer wrote at only 16, reveal a Mozartean naivety that predate the burning Romanticism and brushes with the abyss in more mature works.

Fischer seemed in his element through the waltz-like melodies, savoring the simple lines and ease with which the orchestra dispatched the music. The violins, led by concert master Daishin Kashimoto, carried a bright tone but phrased with elegance.

The technical polish of the Philharmonic stands in stark contrast to the Konzerthaus Orchester, which apparently grew rusty in the hands of its former Music Director Lothar Zagrosek.

Yet if Fischer can hone its husky sound, he and the orchestra may prove a delightful pair, particularly for the Eastern European repertoire he holds so dear.

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