Brahms: Symphony No. 1 - Fischer

Brahms: Symphony No. 1 - Fischer

Channel Classics  CCS SA 28309

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral

Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor Op. 68, Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn Op. 56a, Hungarian Dance No. 14 (arr. Fischer)

Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer (conductor)

“An orchestra musician is an artist, not an employee, and artists must be given the chance to take initiatives and to be creative. Only an orchestra of true artists - making music as a highly disciplined team - is able to realize the dreams of the composers and pass on an uplifting experience to the audience, touching all listeners deep in their heart. This is our aim for which the Budapest Festival Orchestra has been created."

Iván Fischer

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DSD recording
Reviews (2)

Review by Graham Williams - October 6, 2009

Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s first foray on disc into the symphonies of Brahms proves to be quite outstanding in this deeply thoughtful, yet bracing, account of the first of them.

Fischer launches into the opening steady tread of first movement’s introduction with grandeur, nobility and a lack of haste, moulding what follows expressively, yet entirely free from interpretive mannerisms. The main ‘Allegro’ is launched with a considerable forward thrust, but Fischer is not afraid to relax as the music becomes more lyrical and expansive, thus allowing appreciation of the orchestra’s cultured playing in all departments. In fact, the ebb and flow of tension is very much a feature of this performance. The, almost now obligatory, exposition repeat is made, which effectively maintains the overall balance of the symphony.

The slow movement is unfolded with a natural grace and an absence of any unwelcome affectation; the conductor introducing a touch of portamento from the strings and allowing the beautifully phrased wind solos of his marvellous orchestra to blossom. The perfectly blended solo violin and horn (from 5.50 onwards) is an especial delight.

The short, gently flowing ‘Allegretto grazioso’, that follows leads without a pause into the finale, and here in the course its magisterial slow introduction many of the finest qualities of the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s playing are exemplified. Perfectly controlled tempo and dynamics of the pizzicato strings lead to radiant horn and mellifluous flute solos. When the big string tune arrives it is played with an athletic and exhilarating momentum, and Fischer continues to press forward throughout the movement, providing Brahms’s requested ‘brio’. The movement’s coda is taken at a very fast tempo, but thanks to the fine orchestral discipline there is no trace of ragged playing. At the final statement of the chorale theme, Fischer avoids the excessive and unwarranted slowing down heard on many recordings of this symphony, thus providing a brilliant end to this captivating performance.

The two fill-ups on this disc precede the symphony. First comes Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.14 in a delightful arrangement for string orchestra by the conductor Ivan Fischer. The orchestra play this short piece with all the sensitivity and appropriate rubato that one would expect from them given their Magyar heritage.

Next comes a spirited and beautifully pointed performance of one of Brahms’s most well known orchestral works, the ‘Variations on a theme of Haydn’. Comprising a theme, eight variations and a passacaglia, each here is allotted a separate track. The exchanges between the lightly scampering strings in Variation II (Più vivace), the suitably bouncy and rumbustuous horns in Variation VI (Vivace) and the sweetly caressing flute and violins of the lovely Variation VII. (Grazioso) all benfit from Fischer ‘s orchestral layout (antiphonally seated violins etc.) that aids the textural clarity of the music. The finale is firm and emphatic and it is pleasing, for once, to hear the triangle ringing out realistically. This is altogether a most satisfying account of these variations.

The 5.0 surround recording was made in the orchestra’s home venue, Palace of Arts, Budapest. The engineering, in the safe hands of Jared Sacks and Hein Dekker, is both warm and spacious, capturing with realism the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s distinctive and vibrant sound.

This release warrants an unqualified recommendation.

Copyright © 2009 Graham Williams and


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Review by John Miller - November 4, 2009

Here is a concert which presents the essential influences on Brahms' musical development. First, his preoccupation with Hungarian tunes and rhythms, gained from his youth in Hamburg when he and his father provided musical entertainment in cafés and bars. This was distilled into 21 Hungarian Dances for piano duet (although it was later realised that the music was not original folk music but that he had absorbed popular kitsch composed and played by émigré gypsies). Brahms later orchestrated dances 1,3 & 10 and Dvorak Nos 17-21. Brahms' great friend, the Hungarian violinist Joachim, thought that Brahms had himself through-composed three of the dances, of which no 18 was one, and this appears on the present disc in an orchestration for strings by Iván Fischer. Although it steals in romantically here, the original piano version has it enter more robustly. But no matter, the BFO strings capture its shy lyricism most beguilingly and invest it with uniquely Hungarian nuances. A delectable sweet-meat to open the concert.

Another profound influence on Brahms was his devotion to the music of Haydn, and the classical style in general. His Variations on a Theme by Haydn were composed in 1873 while he was on holiday, and is one of his most genial compositions. The jaunty theme is itself a miniature sonata form, with a pair of five-measure phrases at the beginning and a tiny coda. It was known as the St Anthoni Chorale and occurs in a woodwind piece by Haydn - but ironically was not Haydn's own work but probably by his young pupil Ignace Pleyel, from a Medieval source. Brahms wrote the piece as an essential flexing of his orchestral muscles before finally committing his long-awaited First Symphony to paper.

Fischer and the BFO present a reading of the Variations which is relaxed and full of sunshine. He realises that Brahms' masterly architecture is a one of gradual increase of speed and complexity through the variations, culminating in the final Passacaglia, a set of variations on its own. He takes all the repeats, increasing the stature of the work. Within the overall framework of gradual tempo increase, he makes flexible adjustments to accommodate changing moods, reaching the final variation with glowing solemnity and a clear 2/2 beat which resounds with another Brahms tribute - to Bach. Channel's remarkably detailed and superbly balanced recording in the clear acoustic of the Palace of the Arts, Budapest opens up Brahms' somewhat dense scoring as rarely before, with the woodwind well in evidence as the composer himself clearly indicates, often writing pianissimo for the strings while the winds are piano or mezzo forte. The work's pungent trio of 2 bassoons and contra-bassoon are clearly audible in the mix, giving a rustic flavour to the colourful wind chorus with its characteristic Central European timbres.

Channel helpfully give 9 track entries into the Variations, but less helpfully these are not listed anywhere in the digi-Pak presentation.

After struggling for nearly 14 years, Brahms finally completed his First Symphony in 1876. Much of the travail was due to self-doubt, living as he did very consciously in the long shadow of his great master, Beethoven. Having played it to Clara Schumann, who objected strongly to the introduction's relationship with the first subject, he replaced that introduction with the present one, a slow one in the manner of those given by Beethoven to his early symphonies.

Fisher provides a notably intense version of this new crucial opening to the first movement, where almost unbearable tension comes from competition between two themes, one striving ever upwards, the other dragged down by sheer gravity, over a pounding ostinato on the timpani. Fisher encourages the strings to produce swells in volume during their ascent, certainly fulfilling Brahms' enjoinder of 'espressivo'. However, on the second appearance of this thematic struggle, where Brahms gives the pounding ostinato to the basses with a roll on the timpani, the BFO basses are almost lost, compared with their colleagues in the BPO version under Harnoncourt, whose steady tread is unmistakable. However, Fischer launches headlong into the main movement with tremendous fire, getting virtuoso playing with classically-informed detached articulation from the orchestra, reinforcing the impression that Brahms' model here was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The crisis of the development section is impressive in its Herculean strength, finally relaxing somewhat into the recapitulation but attaining the ultimate goal of C major with the last bars truly ablaze. A muscular reading from a true classical heritage.

The second movement rejoices in rich string playing with idiomatic hints of portamento (a common device of the late C19th and early C20th) which add to the sweet expressiveness. Oboe and violin solos are exquisitely rendered, and the blossoming of the middle section is deeply affecting. The movement's solace is gently set off by the flowing Romantic and gently spirited third movement, notable for its songful woodwind chorus, where, as in the whole symphony, all repeats are made. Unusually its last two bars are used as a direct lead-in to their counterparts in the opening of the Finale.

The stage-drama of this finale, using an amplified version of Beethoven's deliberate misleading of audiences by deception and gradual revelation of the main theme, is brilliantly achieved by Fischer and his band. Brahms' famous horn solo is played with a glowing open tone by the BFO principal (shaming his fellow player in the BFO for Harnoncourt) over an accompaniment of almost oceanic breadth. The following short brass/bassoon choir sounds as if taken from the final pages of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. When it finally arrives, the glorious C major main tune is sonorous and passionate, surging with saturated string tone. Fisher and the BFO ensure that the rest of this Finale is a mirror for the first movement in ardour and strength of purpose, building the tension to a magnificent close, in which Brahms truly sounds to be exulting in his final laying of Beethoven's ghost to rest.

This well-planned concert neatly places the main works in context, and in so doing gives many insights. Performances are among the finest available, and the recording quality is simply revelatory. Look no further if you want a single disc of Brahms for your desert island.

Copyright © 2009 John Miller and


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