The performance of a complete cycle of symphonies always offers the chance to reassess a composer's importance. Never is that more the case than when the symphonies are the nine by Beethoven. But there is something even more intriguing to savor with Beethoven Then and Now, part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series.
For a quartet of concerts between March 25 and 28, the conductor will be the pioneering Hungarian maestro Ivšn Fischer, who will have under his baton not one but two celebrated orchestras. One is the Budapest Festival Orchestra, co-founded by Fischer 25 years ago from a group of young Hungarian musicians. Its long commitment to extensive rehearsal and the highest artistic standards recently found it listed by Gramophone magazine as one of the world's top ten orchestras. The other is the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, an ensemble of similar vintage which was founded by a self-governing group of British period-instrument specialists. They have gone on to win worldwide acclaim and work regularly with the likes of Simon Rattle, Vladimir Jurowski, and Charles Mackerras.
Fischer has had a long association with the OAE too, many of whose musicians he has also known for 25 years since his five-year tenure with Kent Opera in the U.K. from 1984 to 1989. "These two orchestras both have something unusual," he explains, "and are often considered models for the future."
The configuration of the concert series finds the British musicians performing Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 ("Eroica") on March 25, and Nos. 1, 8, and 5 the following night. The Hungarians play symphonies Nos. 4 and 7 for their first program on March 27, then conclude the cycle with Nos. 6 ("Pastoral") and 9 the next evening. It may seem a random attribution. How did Fischer make his choice? "Purely personal," he insists. "I imagined which symphony would sound best with which orchestra. It has nothing to do with any systematic allocation, like early ones with period instruments or late ones with the BFO. It would be wrong to assume anything dogmatic about the choice. If I were to do the same cycle again I would probably offer a different arrangement."
That said, Fischer adds that he has fond memories of performing the famous Fifth with the OAE and the Fourth and Seventh with the BFO, so audiences can expect those memories to be evoked again. It's pointless, he argues, to treat the series as an academic exercise designed to illuminate the contrasting ways in which a period orchestra and a modern one might approach the symphonies. "Everything can be heard with any orchestra, period or modern," he says, "if the orchestra is great."
It's an intriguing coincidence that it took Beethoven a quarter of a century, between 1800 and 1824, to compose the complete cycle of symphonies. Both the BFO and the OAE have a history of a comparable length. In that time, the concept of the period specialist has developed into something much more organic than the pedantic reproduction of original performance techniques. "I have a growing feeling that these two worlds are coming together," says Fischer. "The best early music groups passed their first phase of recreating historical sounds and performance practices. They play more and more in an emotional, involved, creative way. And similarly the best symphony orchestras have learned a lot from historically informed colleagues."
It is Fischer's conviction that Beethoven sounds best in the overlap between these two traditions: a compromise between what he calls "the clich_s of a historically correct but predictable early-music band" and the "unarticulated sound-cloud of most modern orchestras." The orchestra of the future, he argues, "will probably be a merger of these now polarized art forms." And at the moment the ideal is most closely embodied in the two youngish orchestras he will conduct in Beethoven Then and Now.
As for the music itself, Fischer has been conducting Beethoven since he entered a competition in London aged 25 in 1976. "I had no experience whatsoever, so I didn't expect to get very far. I didn't even take a concert suit with me to London." He won first prize, which involved conducting Symphony No. 1 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He has since performed the full Beethoven cycle many times, most recently with the BFO four years ago.
As a whole artistic statement the cycle differs, he argues, from the nine symphonies of Mahler or Bruckner. "I would never do a full Bruckner cycle because I don't see any reason to play all of them. One well-chosen Bruckner symphony says everything." As for Mahler, "His works are monumental outpourings of his soul, so full and complete that they should stand alone."
So why do the Beethoven symphonies merit the complete treatment? "As a musical statement Beethoven's symphonies are all different," he explains. "The repetitive simplicity of the first movement of No. 4, the hypnotic power of the second movement of No. 7, the tragedy of the funeral march of the Eroica, the ecstasy of the finale of No. 5, the meditative beauty of the slow movement of No. 9 are all unparalleled. The First Symphony is an absolute masterpiece in its own world."
It is in the unity of the symphonies that Fischer finds the greatest expression of a profound truth about Beethoven, and it is this truth that, he hopes, will be revealed afresh over four nights at Lincoln Center: that Beethoven's genius is "more than purely musical: he changed our perception of what music is. Before him music always served a purpose: church music to elevate the soul, dance music for different social classes, operas to teach a moral or to entertain, etcetera. After Beethoven the composer emerged as a creative artist whose messages are listened to again and again. Beethoven was like the first and greatest prophet and it is the power of his genius which fascinates me. I would like to share my fascination with the audiences."
Ivšn Fischer leads the pair of orchestras in the Beethoven Cycle March 25-28. Click here for more info.
Jasper Rees is the author of A Devil to Play: One Man's Yearlong Quest to Master the Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument (HarperCollins).