What is Bach to Brahms? The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra concluded their four-programme exposition on this question with a Magnificat followed by Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 in C minor. Brahms not only championed Bach when it was not a given to do so, but also drew copious inspiration from his works. After labouring in Beethoven’s vast shadow for about fourteen years, he revealed his fully-fledged First Symphony, which was both an overt tribute to Beethoven and Brahms’ coronation as his successor as master of the genre. The work also owes much to Bach, however, in its use of complex counterpoint. Juxtaposing the two masterpieces clarified their common lineage. Brahms' layering of themes passed back and forth between orchestral sections is informed by Bach’s polyphonic richness, gloriously in evidence in the Magnificat’s five-part chorus. It was revealing to hear Bach’s lower string pizzicato emulated in the Brahms. In the symphony’s fourth movement the trombones come in with a Bach-like chorale and the timpani play a prominent role in both works. Furthermore, Iván Fischer’s conducting style brought the two composers closer together. His Bach was heavier and his Brahms lighter than we have come to expect. In spite of luxury soloists in the Bach, the Brahms emerged as the more cohesive and convincing performance.

Iván Fischer © Marco Borggreve
Iván Fischer
© Marco Borggreve

Six male choristers placed the Magnificat in textual and liturgical context with two antiphons, one before and one after, relating the archangel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary of her virgin pregnancy. The text of the Magnificat, which Bach scored for the Lutheran Vespers, is taken from Luke’s Gospel. It is Mary’s hymn of praise to God while visiting her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant, with John the Baptist. The opening chorus set the tone for the rest of the ensembles, which rang out with grave opulence but lacked the last spurt of impetus to make them take flight. Though far from ponderous, Mr Fischer’s Bach was definitely on the heavy side, with phrases sometimes stretched out beyond stylistic allowance. The strength of the performance lay in the solo contributions from singers and musicians. Bass Peter Harvey and mezzo-soprano Rosanne van Sandwijk both gave worthy performances. Self-contained gems included Anna Lucia Richter’s glistening soprano with the melting oboe d’amore in Quia respexit humilitatem, and a warm and ductile Esurientes implevit bonis by countertenor Iestyn Davies and two traverso solos. In the tricky tenor aria Deposuit potentes Benjamin Hulett delivered a perfect combination of drama and vocal dexterity. The Netherlands Chamber Choir was most impressive in the two closing choruses, especially in the initial cascading lines of Gloria Patri, where Mr Fischer’s emphatic sweep was an asset. It has to be said, though, that the RCO trumpets had the best trill.

The display of solo virtuosity continued in Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 in C minor – in the entwining silks of oboe, flute and clarinet, and the ember glow of the long concertmaster solo. This time, however, the fine solos flowed in and out of a unified whole. Mr Fischer has very clear ideas about this work and he presented them in a beautifully contoured performance bursting with vitality. The RCO players added the burnish to his smooth outlines. He savoured slow passages without weighing them down, teasing out phrases during the Andante sostenuto, as if waking them from a sensuous slumber. The scherzo-like third movement was vibrant, with taut articulation. By increasing sound density, Mr Fischer emphasised the nebulous transitions between movement sections. He then opted for high definition and utmost clarity in the climaxes. It was as if he were focussing and refocussing on the work through a telescope, holding the listener in his grip. 

If anything was missing, it was a sense of inexorable fate in the opening movement and a manic edge to the celebration in the final movement. It is not that the swelling ensembles lacked breadth. There was breadth aplenty, and it was three-dimensional, with an awed solemnity in the slow build-ups. The allegros in the outlying movements, however, though undoubtedly exciting, were devoid of danger. Brahms’ pounding timpani and the hounded pace of his fast climaxes more than hint at foreboding and a scarring struggle with destiny. Darker versions of this symphony have us looking up with dread at a craggy mountain face before impelling us to conquer it. With Mr Fischer you could see the sunlit mountain top at the outset. Optimism buoyed the unstoppable surge forward and the joyous finale, performed with flaring brightness, was a youthful expression of assured victory. Together with the RCO, who played like demigods, Mr Fisher made an aesthetically forceful case for a brighter Brahms’ First. Whether one chooses to be persuaded or not is a matter of taste.