Berlin’s Konzerthaus Orchestra began its new season with works by two composers set against the artistic orthodoxies of their day. Anton Bruckner was by all accounts an oddball, obsessed with numerical order as well as maintaining bizarre morbid idiosyncracies. He was a reluctant standard-bearer for the New German School of Wagner and Liszt, and remained enthralled by the power of the symphony.

Iván Fischer © Marco Borggreve
Iván Fischer
© Marco Borggreve

Similarly, Hans Werner Henze beat his own trail as a young German composer after the Second World War, rejecting the radicalism of Boulez and Stockhausen for an expressive and lyrical style. In the violin concerto Il Vitalino raddoppiato, Henze draws a continuous line from the Baroque to his own idiosyncratic modernism. Tomaso Vitali’s well-known Chaconne in G minor – one of only a handful of works the baroque composer is remembered for – is the source material for a set of time-travelling variations.

Vitali’s theme is initially quoted verbatim, albeit lushly re-orchestrated for chamber ensemble with an enlarged woodwind section. As the piece progresses, the consonant melodic writing and neo-classicist style become gradually unhinged, rather like a broken mechanical toy running amok. Soloist Julia Fischer prefaced this performance of Henze’s work by pointing out that the piece was new to many in the Konzerthaus Orchestra. Under chief conductor Iván Fischer, they proved themselves a nimble and agile band, bringing the same vividity to the work’s initial gushing romanticism as to its complex, disintegrating endgame.

However, Julia Fischer was the real bandleader here, stringing together Henze’s broad, swooping lines and putting a spring in the ensemble’s step with her taut and springy passagework. At the work’s close, Henze pushes Vitali’s theme off a precipice into absolute dissonance – the elliptical cadenza was stark and mysterious. Fischer barely kept her feet on the ground in her encore, a whirlwind rendition of Paganini’s 24th Caprice.

Although it provided its composer with his greatest public success, Bruckner’s Symphony no. 7 in E major was critically derided as contrary to musical logic, and described as a “symphonic boa constrictor”. It is built from an aphoristic succession of musical ideas, through which certain themes recur obsessively, building to almighty ear-splitting climaxes. At the Konzerthaus, Iván Fischer calmly let this musical snake unfurl, before whipping the orchestra into frenzy.

Fischer sat back on the first movement’s ponderous lyric phrases and thunderous tuttis. He also took the pompous grandeur of the Adagio at its word – supposedly composed when the composer learned of Wagner’s death, the movement’s central crescendo is, at the very least, a self-conscious monument to the high peaks of German music. The symphony’s fearsome brass writing, complete with Wagner tuba, is a more explicit tribute to the composer Bruckner idolised throughout his life.

The ensemble was energised by the Scherzo, which they rattled through with casual expansiveness. In the Finale, Fischer coaxed some thrilling edge-of-your-seat moments from the orchestra, finding fluidity in the movement’s serpentine twists and turns. At times, he seemed to be physically wrestling the piece into submission. The orchestra responded with vivid gestures and a gargantuan climax to close.