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 Recording of the Week  Iván Fischer conducts music by Tchaikovsky and Borodin

For a third time, I find myself with the pleasant duty of reviewing a disc by Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra – and on the strength of their excellent Brahms 2, and mellow Mahler 9, my expectations of their performance of Tchaikovsky’s 6th were high. I’m happy to report that Fischer once again doesn’t disappoint; indeed, he’s brought to light elements of this work, in particular textural details, that I’d never heard before.

It must be said that some of his tempi caught me by surprise – the first movement, in particular, is consistently on the fast side of what I’m used to (but then, my go-to recording of this piece until now had been a venerable Karajan account with the Berliner Philharmoniker, and times have certainly changed since then). This desire to keep things moving does have some very positive consequences; the sudden, impassioned outbursts in the first movement regain the sense of urgency that I think Tchaikovsky must have intended (rather than being luxurious, soaring and Wagnerian). It’s the same story when the agitato section begins; Fischer’s speed lends the rhythmically unstable writing in this section a real feeling of neurotic panic, and the tragic brass climax of the movement pushes relentlessly, even mercilessly on without slackening pace.

Iván Fischer
Iván Fischer

From the above, it might seem that Fischer’s account is a fearsomely powerful one (and with Tchaikovsky’s notorious quadruple-forte markings, there’s certainly ample temptation for the brass section in particular to obliterate everyone else!). However, the opposite is true; even during the loud brass-led sections, the strings can still be heard over the top with a clarity that seems barely believable.

Compared to the first movement, Fischer’s approach to the others is less unorthodox; the waltz is appropriately light-footed, neither dragging nor unnecessarily rushed. The wind section are a delight as ever – in some passages he seems to have made a conscious decision to let the first oboe lead the texture, and this brings a nice “edge” to the section’s sound, while elsewhere (as well as in the final movement) the low horn playing is particularly noteworthy.

The march has often – inexplicably, to my mind – been taken at a breakneck pace that leaves the players scrabbling for the triplets that permeate it. Fischer chooses clarity over speed, and the judgement call pays off. Neither the triplets, nor the recurring fanfare motif, ever feel “snatched” or indeed anything other than completely under control. I think the same thinking lies behind the slight ritardando over the very final triplet of the march – a decision that I admit caused me to raise an eyebrow, but which does ground the final cadence very solidly rather than powering straight through it with the pedal flat to the floor.

The result of this approach, of course, is that the contrast with the start of the final movement is amplified. As soon as that first string motif begins, the controlled, confident pomposity of the march is permanently shattered and the grief-stricken mood of the opening returns. With three minutes to go, in the final dying throes of the movement, Fischer finally lets his brass players off the leash, to hair-raising effect – a rising motif in the low brass cuts through the entire orchestral texture like a knife in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible were it not for Fischer’s earlier restraint.

By way of an encore, he offers the ever-popular Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor, with the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno stepping up to the plate. Space does not permit me to enlarge on this performance beyond the fact that it is spirited, colourful and assured – but personally, the intelligently-paced and emotionally powerful Tchaikovsky was more than enough to convince me by itself. While I won’t be throwing away my old Berlin recording any time soon, I will certainly be asking Karajan to shuffle up on the CD shelf to make room for this performance.

Iván Fischer conducts Borodin & Tchaikovsky

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer

Available Format: SACD