Established in 1952 as the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester (not to be confused with the later Berliner Symphoniker), with a founding roster of conductors including Hildebrandt, Sanderling and Herbig, the Konzerthausorchester, renamed in 2006, appointed Iván Fischer music director in 2012. Originally intended to be East Berlin's rival orchestra to the Western zone's Philharmoniker under Furtwängler and Karajan, it enjoys today one of the largest subscription bases of any ensemble in Germany, with over 12,000 patrons.
Fischer, ever the cultured gentleman, unprepared to rush, building the sound both upwards and horizontally, directed a Bruckner Seventh of princely wisdom, humbly glorious. The first movement was warm and lyrical, a stroll through the Wienerwald, murmurs and nature-calls on the one hand, intimate chatter, the threat of storms on the other, sunlit alpine peaks by the end. Fischer's strength, encouraging an orchestra to be naturally at ease with itself, has always rested in pointing textures at crucial corners but otherwise letting the music speak and interact at its own inbuilt rhythm and tempo.
The body language of his players was visibly relaxed, with time to exchange smiles, to listen and respond to each other. The Adagio (complete with an expressively dancing moderato second subject) built to a splendid climax, the Leviathan swing to C-major, re-instating the (necessary) percussion of the 1885 first edition, ringing out with cosmic inexorability and an almost perfect absence of telegraphing. The Wagner tubas of the coda, impeccably co-ordinated and tuned, made for the high poetry and deep harmony of a Caspar David Friedrich nightscape.
The Scherzo was driven home with just the right balance of Beethovenian hammering and Schubertian repose, the great descending unisons thundering with the might of Roman chariots rounding the Coliseum. Taking care (unusually) to beat the silent bars at the end of the Da capo, Fischer guaranteed a knife-edge finish without loss of performance tension.
The Finale, albeit on the brisk side, found space to terrace timbre, dynamics, and formal episodes with clarity, direction and strong individual contributions (violas, woodwinds). By the closing fortissimo bars, as weighty yet transparent as any I've experienced, Fischer seemed to want to leave us with a message of hope. Yes, Bruckner's world may sometimes be dark and brooding, ghosted by apparitions, murky mists and glacial crevasses – but it can also be glorious and life-enhancing. The Seventh is a Symphony for a king – but all men can be kings.
In the first half Julia Fischer tackled Hans Werner Henze's Il Vitalino raddoppiato (1977), premiered by Gidon Kremer and Leif Segerstam at the 1978 Salzburg Festival. Tender, acerbic, neurotic, deliriously flying, challenging, enigmatic, complex in organisation, texture and theatre, an encounter between the Baroque and late- 20th-century through neo-Romantic, Brahmsian/Mediterraneanised, lenses, this exacting extravaganza for “violino concertante” and chamber orchestra is based on Vitali’s G-minor Chaconne (Ferdinand David's 1867 version).
Henze liked to think of it as a meeting in a local bar, a talk, conversation, argument, fight (which he “wins”) between the Italian and himself. Fischer's 28-minute reading, unsurprisingly, was serious, determined and structurally focussed, with foreground dominance and clarity of articulation at a premium. She drew out Henze's long lines with lyric poise (a magnificent opening), and, digging hard into the strings, scaled his mountainous virtuoso writing and the climactic “grosse cadenza, echt Henze” (her words) with rhythmic bite, passing intonation issues notwithstanding.
The ensemble (flute/piccolo, oboe/cor anglais, bass-clarinet, bassoon, horn, harp, strings) was largely fluent and dramatised, passages of discomfort and loose attack recovered with minimum loss of composure. Henze (whose view of the work was more measured) believed that in any performance it is important to “nurture the caesurae, the breaks, the breaths – [otherwise] the music becomes frantic, boring.” Given these artists this Berlin account was never going to be boring. The thrill and commitment was palpable. Arguably, though, it didn't always succeed in overcoming the frantic factor, certain sections racing the moment at the expense of breath and breadth in the long-term.