Invited by the Vienna Philharmonic to conduct the first of the orchestra’s annual series of performances at Carnegie Hall, Ádám Fischer proposed a program that seemed – at least on paper – a tad odd, placing, between two well-known middle-period Beethoven masterpieces, a rarely played work composed by Bartók at the beginning of his career.

Ádam Fischer conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall © Chris Lee
Ádam Fischer conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall
© Chris Lee

Fischer’s choice might have been just an homage paid to a celebrated countryman. It might have also been an attempt at suggesting that the young Bartók, one of the greatest composers of the first half of the 20th century, was as innovative in 1910 as was Beethoven in the first decade of the 19th century. The truth is that Bartók’s ability to integrate East European folk and a Western “art” music is already palpable in Two Pictures. Those were years when Bartók immersed himself in the study of Debussy’s scores, captivated by the French composer’s efforts to integrate melody and harmony, to avoid traditional motivic development and long narrative expanses. From the initial dialogue between clarinet, English horn and oboe on top of a string accompaniment to the final flute trill descending into silence, the first of the two movements, In Full Flower, undoubtedly bears the mark of Debussy without being a mere imitation. Fischer took great pains to emphasize the different rhythmic patterns, building a soundscape that foreshadows Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Using the same rather large orchestral apparatus, the second part of this diptych – Village Dance – is less impressionistic and more folk-tunes driven. Fischer maintained an ideal balance between the music’s predominantly agitato character and the few dreamier moments (as represented by a wonderfully rendered oboe lament).

The evening started with an unconvincing account of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture no. 3, where brass attacks were occasionally sluggish. The performance seemed to be unfocused at some points and rushed at other times. Despite displaying an amazing level of energy, Fischer seemed to have difficulties taming the thematic wealth into a cohesive whole.

Ádam Fischer conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall © Chris Lee
Ádam Fischer conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall
© Chris Lee

There is no way one can fully comprehend today the shock felt by the first listeners of Beethoven's “Eroica” Symphony, one of the most amazingly innovative scores in the entire history of Western music. But one can reasonably expect that, despite the music’s popularity, an outstanding interpretation can shed new light on some aspects defining a “living organism” of such complexity. What ensemble is better equipped for such a task than the Vienna Philharmonic with its deep experience carefully transmitted from one generation of players to the next, especially when lead by a Classicist who is also a great opera conductor and has been associated with this ensemble since the days when he was a répétiteur at the Staatsoper? As a conductor with a special affinity for the music of Haydn, Ádám Fischer underlined several Haydnesque moments in the Scherzo. He brought clarity to the backward-looking sequences in the Finale and prepared the fugal build-up well leading to the surprising Poco Andante solo oboe. Nevertheless, the ascent to the overall peak of the symphony, the shattering diminished seventh in the Marcia funebre lacked gravitas. In a clean and lean first movement, listeners barely felt that the struggle in the huge development section is a direct response to the Heiligenstadt Testament.

There is a tradition according to which a Vienna Philharmonic performance at Carnegie Hall has to finish with a Strauss waltz. Fischer picked a rather lengthy one – the Kaiserwalzer by Johann Strauss II – and its execution was, as expected, immaculate, full of charm and sparkle. Released from Beethovenian tension, the Stern Auditorium filled up with Gemütlichkeit. There was a somewhat weird connotation in unwillingly admitting that the best performance in a Beethoven-Bartók program by one of the great orchestras of the world was the Strauss encore.

****1