In these mad times, can one imagine a more optimistic way to open a new year than two journeys from darkness to light? In a gilt-edged programme in which Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony complemented Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, Iván Fischer with Artist-in-Residence Jean-Yves Thibaudet honoured the audience of the Great Hall with a splendid initiation of the New Year. By preceding each work with a tiny gem, the inventive Hungarian prepared the listener’s ear for each composer; from the start both masterpieces swept you off your feet.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Jean-Yves Thibaudet
With the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Fischer offered the audience Beethoven rarely performed by the RCO. It must be a personal favorite, as it was Fischer who led it the last time seven years ago. Written for a ballet at the Viennese Court of Empress Maria Theresia, the piece resulted in one of Beethoven’s earliest successes.

Within the brief work, Fischer deftly switched gears, propelling the orchestra from the brooding Adagio, where the strings simmered with tension, through to the exhilarating currents with a chipper wind section in the Allegro con brio ending. It wasn’t hard to imagine Prometheus’ escape, fleeing Mount Olympus after stealing fire from the gods. What an entrance!

Following his intriguing performance last month of James MacMillan’s Third Piano Concerto, The Mysteries of Light, Thibaudet returned for an impeccable rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major. The Allegro opened up Beethoven’s majestic world. From the strings with their motif in the higher registers, Fischer finagled a vaguely shrill and highly stimulating sound... I don’t recall hearing it before from them. The wind section this time created highly atmospheric, almost eerie, moments. In his natural flair and joyful engagement with Fischer and the orchestra, Thibaudet appeared to play with pure spontaneity.

Something wondrous occurred in the Adagio un poco mosso... a highlight of the evening. With the swelling of the strings, Beethoven’s resonating theme emerged. With his mastery over Beethoven, Fischer achieved such disarming authenticity that I unexpectedly (without tissues) had to close my eyes to the let tears flow. Later I noticed, I wasn’t the only one moved so deeply. Then Thibaudet emerged, his notes transparent like sparkling stars on a cloudless night. The overwhelming, emotional opening made way for equally powerful contemplative moments. The second movement ended in perfection with Thibaudet in an almost cheeky tête-à-tête with Marinus Komst, who punctuated with crisp notes and smooth ruffles on the timpani.

Quickly launching into the last movement's Rondo, Fischer and Thibaudet’s energetic symbiosis continued. His controlled, powerful piano play fitted well with Fischer’s tight grasp. With thrilling momentum the finale flew by.

Before initiating the second half, Fischer (in Dutch) briefly addressed the audience about Pierre Boulez’s passing. He emphasized the coincidental suitability to perform Mozart’s Maurerische Trauermusik in memory of the maverick musician. Originally performed at the funeral service of Freemasons, the lighter moments of the piece keep if from being too weighty.

Between the atypical colours of the basset horns and the subtle presence of Simon Van Holen on the contrabassoon, Boulez’s singular character resonated poignantly. With a silenced audience, Fischer sustained a profound tension for quite some time after the music ended.

With a stiff back, seemingly in pain throughout the evening, and continuing his conducting from a seated position, Fischer managed an exemplary rendition of Mozart’s Symphony no. 41 in C major “Jupiter”. The fanfare lit up the Allegro vivace. The Sarabande offered thoughtful moods, reminiscent of Bach. In the the third movement, Fischer produced some strikingly transparent passages. Later, the baroque trumpets stole the show. Fischer manoeuvred through the Molto allegro and reached the five-voice fugue finale, increasing the intensity almost to a frenzy, leading to a monumental ending.

I couldn’t have imagined a better way to start the New Year.