OAE Beethoven Cycle – 3: Symphonies 1, 8 & 5/Iván Fischer

Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Iván Fischer

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 10 March, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Iván Fischer. Photograph: Budapest Festival OrchestraWith hindsight these symphonies might have been played in chronological order. On paper, the idea of juxtaposing Beethoven’s two ‘little’ symphonies was an enticing one, but, with little gap afforded for ‘thinking time’ between the two – Iván Fischer keen to get on with things – the First and Eighth slightly cancelled each other out. Had the Fifth been centrally placed, the economy and nostalgia of the Eighth could have been appreciated after the momentous events of the C minor work – which would been historically accurate as well as informed.

While for a second never doubting the musicianship, energy, enthusiasm and commitment of the members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, none of these performances were wholly successful, although each had its moments. Iván Fischer, continuing the OAE’s Beethoven symphony cycle, could at times be fussy, something of a dilettante in prettifying the music, toying with the music’s surface, often elegant, sometimes too nudged, yet somehow consciously tinkering.

The opening movement of the First Symphony was a joy, as was the finale of the Eighth, both given with moderate tempos and time to shape; the early symphony was frisky and both works were afforded much attention to dynamics, note-values and attack. Rustic-sounding woodwinds were a delight, yet the second movement of the C major symphony dragged, and the finale was rushed through. The F major symphony wasn’t explosive enough, and its humour muted, and needed a greater number of string-players, both for the music itself and certainly for the size of the Royal Festival Hall.

And playing-strength was even more an issue for the Fifth Symphony, which Fischer rather romped through, with no real sense of darkness-to-light, the finale speedy and bright, but this was no ground-out victory. One might recall the lovely dulcet tones of violas and cellos at the beginning of the second movement, the quacking of the contrabassoon and the glee of the piccolo in the finale, in which Beethoven expanded the ‘classical’ orchestra, to which the dinky trombones made a distinctive foundation, but Fischer’s rather glib conducting made the music seem empty of inspiration (if not of impulse and detail), and all-too-familiar save for the OAE’s particular soundworld, one that on this occasion wasn’t designed for the acoustic (the strings were simply too few and were overshadowed by winds and brass, including three flutes and three trumpets, which is less than ‘authentic’) and in which the music flew by, yet seemingly without any remit as to why this should be so, and that Beethoven really was writing for posterity, the still-developing symphony orchestra and the likes of Furtwängler and Klemperer.

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