It must be a dream come true for any conductor: a prominent venue gives a conductor the opportunity to conduct works by a composer he loves, with three different orchestras who love him. That’s the Stravinsky Festival in a nutshell, which the Konzerthaus Berlin had Iván Fischer conducting three orchestras with which he has shared long association: the Konzerthaus Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and his own Budapest Festival Orchestra. The centrepiece of each programme was one of the three important ballet pieces: Firebird, Petrushka and, here on the last evening, Le Sacre du printemps.

Iván Fischer © Marco Borggreve
Iván Fischer
© Marco Borggreve

For this last concert with the BFO, Fischer chose three lesser known titbits to start with, all composed in the early 1940s: Four Norwegian Impressions, Scherzo à la russe and Tango. Both Norwegian Impressions and the Scherzo were originally composed for Hollywood films, but were never used, since Stravinsky did not agree to the changes wanted by the producers. So in both cases, he made very minor changes in order to present them as stand-alone concert works.

Norwegian Impressions are four musical snapshots, lasting in total just nine minutes, strongly inspired by a compilation of Nordic folksongs, which Stravinsky's wife found in a used book store in Los Angeles. At the concert, the horns start alone, calling the conductor to the podium. A little gag that spells out the ironic opinion of the composer of these four tunes named Intrada, Song, Wedding Dance and Cortège, imbued with rhythmic finesse and harmonious melodies.

The Scherzo, even shorter at four minutes, was going to be used for the movie The North Star – a war film dealing with Germany’s invasion of Russia. That didn’t happen. Then it was revised as a jazz piece for the Paul Whiteman Band. Finally, a third reworking into an orchestral version satisfied the composer. Melodic phrases are reminiscent of Russian songs with a close-knit canon between the piano and the harp, ending with a shimmering string trio.

The orchestral version of his Tango is a “relatively simple composition”, in Stravinsky’s own words, with which he hoped to earn quick money. The melodies are his own composition, but the allusions to the typical tango accentuations and rhythmic syncopation are all there in a subtly elaborate, deliciously coloured portrait of a dance type that had already started to conquer the world. In fact, a pair of musicians put their instruments aside, music stands pushed aside and the couple “spontaneously” showed off intricate tango step sequences.

The Symphony of Psalms concluded the first part. The excellent RIAS Chamber Chorus (prepared by Fabian Enders) provided the vocal part and complemented the unique orchestration of the piece – no violins, violas or clarinets. Composed in 1930, at a time when Stravinsky returned to the teachings of the Russian Orthodox faith, he wrote in the dedication, “This symphony was composed for the glory of God.” Fischer paced the orchestra thoughtfully – the first movement a prayer with a rhythm that is answered by the polyphonic transparency of the chamber music of the second movement, culminating in an almost cheering melismatic finale. A word of praise to the sensitive and expressive woodwinds and brass of the orchestra and to Fischer, who kept them and the chorus very much in balance – heaven and earth held together by his magnetic pulse.

The pièce de résistance came after intermission: the classic Sacre du Printemps. The opening woodwinds giving us the main theme of the following 35 minutes of pagan melodies, or at least how Stravinsky interpreted his vision of a group of village elders watching the preparations of the ritualistic sacrifice of a young girl to assuage the God of Spring. Premiered in 1913 by the Ballets Russes on the choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky, the music was revolutionary then and it is still gripping and emotionally laden now. From today’s perspective, over a century later, we hear this cacophony of orchestral voices and detect early pop rhythms, repetitive earthy thumping percussion, primal strings that gain momentum and strength while fate takes its unstoppable course until it reaches the sudden end, when the exhausted sacrificial victim drops dead. Fischer allowed each individual musician to shine and richly develop the musical themes, while holding the ensemble together at a high-voltage tension level that conveyed the sheer abundance of emotional shadings of the human condition.

May the wonderful dialogue and easy understanding between conductor and orchestra continue for a long time to come. We, the audience, can only benefit from such positive symbiosis.

*****