On paper at least, the New York Philharmonic subscription concerts taking place during Thanksgiving week and featuring two beloved repertoire staples – Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major – seemed to be quite conventional. There were reasons though to expect more than an ordinary, middle-of-the-road evening. Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer has always aimed to shine a different light on these scores that the public knows so well that the pleasure of recognizing the tunes is overwhelmed by the inability to pay enough attention. Many a time – particularly when leading his Budapest Festival Orchestra, an ensemble which he single-handedly transformed into one of the top European orchestras – he injects new life into works rendered banal by all too frequent repeats. In addition, the soloist in Beethoven’s concerto, Nikolaj Znaider, is increasingly taking up the baton himself and one could hope to observe in these performances how his personal view of interpreting Beethoven would agree or clash with Fischer’s approach to the music.

Iván Fischer © Marco Borggreve
Iván Fischer
© Marco Borggreve

Expectations were fulfilled from the very beginning. Fischer proposed a peculiar seating arrangement for the orchestra’s sections. The strings were arrayed clockwise in the first violins, cellos, violas and second violins order. Basses where placed in the center of the stage, behind the woodwinds. Brass instruments were split: horns, on the conductor’s left, behind the cellos; trumpets, next to the percussion on the right, behind the violas. I can’t say that the orchestral sound was able to transcend the usual acoustical problems of the David Geffen Hall but it was certainly different. Besides an impeccable technique and a warm, sweet sound, Znaider did approach Beethoven’s violin concerto with a conductor’s ear. He made absolutely sure that this was not a soloist “against” orchestra performance. From exquisite pianissimos – before the first part’s recapitulation – to using the full power of his Fritz Kreisler formerly owned Guarneri del Gesù in the Rondo, the soloist carefully blended his sound with the ensemble’s.

In the Allegro ma non troppo, he turned several times away from the conductor towards Sheryl Staples, the evening’s concertmaster, acknowledging that the first violins are the ones stating the theme to the soloist’s embellishing accompaniment. Fischer and Znaider emphasized less the “Sturm und Drang” like characteristics of this music, putting more of an accent on delicately rendering every nuance, underlying each transformation of the famous five soft timpani strokes motif that marks the very beginning of the Allegro, carefully navigating, in the coda, along the complex series of modulations that take the music from the dominant key of A back to the tonic.

Fischer approached Dvořák’s music with directness and panache, achieving on several occasions an outstanding sound transparency. He lingered less on the many wonderful tunes and more on the mastery with which these melodies were assembled into a whole symphonic edifice. The conductor emphasized both the music’s debt to Beethoven and Brahms – the wonderful cello enounced themes in the first and last parts – and Dvořák’s singular voice. He avoided the grandiloquence that could have marked some segments of the Adagio. Fischer elicited superb solo playing from flutist Robert Langevin and clarinetist Anthony McGill, respectively in the Allegro ma non troppo finale. Apart from the waltz-like Allegretto grazioso which was a bit too heavy, and several less than perfect brass interventions, it was a remarkable performance.

The New York Philharmonic would do well to invite such an insightful musician to guest conduct more often.