About this Recording
8.505251 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies (Complete) (Danish Chamber Orchestra, Á. Fischer)
English  Danish 

MICHAEL BO’S INTERVIEW WITH ÁDÀM FISCHER

He would be tired, right?

That is what you would expect. Don’t get me wrong, Ádám Fischer is tired, but being tired is something purely physical with him, something that seems almost inconsequential.

“After having conducted all four operas in Der Ring des Nibelungen over the course of four days, I did not feel tired afterwards, either. Beethoven’s Ninth has the same effect on me. I feel as if I could get right back up on the podium and start all over again!”

I meet up with Ádám Fischer while he is in the process of recording Beethoven’s monumental last titanic symphony, a charge of energy for the musicians on the podium, as well as for producer John Frandsen and for Maestro himself.

There is this sense that Beethoven’s Ninth is one of humanity’s great creations. After this symphony we turn another page and move on with new insights into the history of art and culture. A sense that it was Beethoven who added sound to the Romantic Age, throwing us head and heart first into deep water, without really making sure that we were able to swim.

There is that sense. And it is a daunting one. And Ádám Fischer is visibly energized. Ádám Fischer, born in Budapest in 1949, has been the Principal Conductor of Danish Chamber Orchestra for precisely 20 years, alongside his high-profile international career, which has made him a frequent guest at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, at the Wiener Staatsoper, and most recently at La Scala in Milan.

When it comes to recordings, Fischer and Danish Chamber Orchestra’s huge and ambitious claim to fame is their CD recordings of all of Mozart’s symphonies, which have been praised all over the world. In those days the orchestra went by the name of DR UnderholdingsOrkestret and was a Danish Radio ensemble.

Fischer has previously recorded all of Haydn’s symphonies with the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, so he has a thing for complete cycles by his favourite composers. Ádám Fischer’s recordings are tailormade for the persistent listener. When Ádám Fischer first begins to tug at a thread in the whole musical framework, landscapes and vistas reveal themselves which he must not only explore but also adopt into his whole organism and of which he feels some sort of co-ownership.

At some point, the symphonies in Beethoven’s or Mozart’s oeuvres, which have otherwise drawn the least attention to themselves, become just as interesting and as crucial as the great established masterpieces in the hands of Ádám Fischer.

“We accomplish it together,” is one of Ádám Fischer’s phrases. When you have heard one of his interpretations of Beethoven, you tend to think of music being created collectively as music made “The Fischer Way”.

“Over the years I have learnt that it is always better to leave the musical solutions to the musicians of the orchestra. It has to originate from them and the personality they share collectively.”

How far off are you from the end goal?, I ask Fischer after one of the recording sessions of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Ádám Fischer considers his words a little, and their consequences.

“Every time I bought a CD 20 years ago, I insisted that this should the final, the ultimate recording of a given work. But slowly and gradually I have come to accept that the ultimate recording is an illusion. It does not exist. Just as I have to acknowledge that in a few years the orchestra and I will play even our Beethoven differently. We all change. We grow older.”

“I renew my relationship to symphonies that I once conducted when conducting them today. You have to stand on the podium radiating confidence, even though you know that in a little while you will do it differently.”

“The Ninth by Beethoven is the most popular symphony in the repertoire. It has been played in an unbroken line since it was first performed in 1824. Only Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” has achieved the same. In the 19th century you only played contemporary music. It was the absolute exception if you performed something that was 20 years old.”

“The Fifth is actually an even greater challenge than the Ninth,” says Ádám Fischer, almost as an afterthought.

“It is played in even more diverse ways. The Fifth symphony was the first orchestral work ever to be recorded when Arthur Nikisch did it back in 1913.”

Even in the 19th century when old music was performed, it was conceived of very differently than musicians aim for today. The goal was not to simply play the music as it was written. The musicians would have been astonished if anyone had asked them to simply do that. In the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, Mahler came up with the idea of having a full drum corps at full volume passing through the auditorium, and he added extra percussion to the symphony for effect.

“You can compare the conductor to a modern-day stage director. A stage director asks himself, “What should I do with this old play? Should I try to visualize how the playwright would have done it today and try to understand what he wanted to say? This is the philosophy of a stage director as it is the philosophy of the conductor.”

“It is impossible to listen to music from the beginning of the 19th century today and really understand what it felt like to hear it for the first time.”

“When playing Beethoven, Mozart or Haydn, it is not enough to play it on original instruments or try to play exactly as our research indicates that they did back then. It would not, to the same extent, move a contemporary audience emotionally, because in the meantime our ears have changed, and so have the things we can fantasize and dream about. I need to play the notes in such a way that we can recreate the feelings of the listeners which Beethoven would have wanted to invoke in his audience, rather than playing it exactly how he wanted it to sound.”

But much of the dogmatism and the uncompromising way of historical performance practice in the recent early music movement has been dissolved into pragmatism and with a completely prevalent desire to make music sound natural with whatever means required instrumentally and as regards tempo and dynamics.

“I need to find out why a piece of music was written. It is not sufficient to merely follow Beethoven’s instructions, as this may not suffice to convince the orchestra and the audience. I have to feel it in my body why it was so important to him. And not only that, I have to want what he wanted, make his will my own.”

Ádám Fischer, in fact, managed to record six of Beethoven’s symphonies with his Danish orchestra back in 2014. Just as they were about to tackle The Ninth Symphony, a political decision was made to impose financial cuts to the State Radio (Danmarks Radio). These cuts resulted in the withdrawal of Danmarks Radio from the cooperation with the DR Chamber Orchestra, thereby depriving it of all state funding.

Following this difficult time, the orchestra was in danger of shutting down completely and with this all the work they had done since 1998 was about to collapse. The orchestra, however, with great help from the audience and sponsors, reinvented itself as the independent Danish Chamber Orchestra and continued its signature work with the major Viennese classics.

Only a handful of the original musicians from the first years remain. Yet, to Ádám Fischer it is the same orchestra that he has worked with for two decades.

“Going ahead with the recordings made no sense at this critical time, now that the orchestra was to disband. And we wanted to start all over again with the new orchestra.”

You have recorded a Haydn cycle, a Mozart one, and now a Beethoven cycle. What kind of development do these cycles bear witness to?

“Obviously, Beethoven was more revolutionary than the other two, but I find the same upheaval in both Haydn’s and Mozart’s music. Beethoven was extremely interested in the effect Haydn’s music had on his audiences, not least because Haydn to some extent was Beethoven’s mentor. Beethoven knew Haydn’s symphonies intimately, and we know that Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 had a great influence on him. To understand Beethoven you need to be familiar with Haydn.”

Ádám Fischer mentions Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli, its immediate and visceral fear of the war which also appears in The Creation.

“We hear the urge to enjoy the moment and to try to be happy, but in the background there is the incessant gunfire. Beethoven adopted this and, in his works, it stands out even clearer. Everything in his work associates to revolution and war, victory and defeat. Haydn was perhaps more human. In Haydn’s music people have become accustomed to war which is tragic in itself. The war is always present, but people try to focus on other matters and be happy. Haydn tries to turn a deaf ear to war, but he doesn’t succeed.”

The general impression of Beethoven is that he was the first subjective composer, the first to write his autobiography in his music …

“Yes … and no,” says Ádám Fischer.

“We try to understand these composers through our own feelings and experiences, but they lived in a different time. Just as Haydn’s and Mozart’s times were different from Beethoven’s. What sets them apart is the French Revolution. Until then, musicians were content with their place in the hierarchy of society. There is a famous story about Haydn, who was asked why he had never written piano quintets: “Why would I?,” he replied. “No one ever asked me to.”

So, at this time art was not yet about expressing yourself?

“Well, it was. Haydn expressed himself, but the inspiration only arose when he was asked to write a specific piece. This is in contrast to Beethoven and later on Wagner. Wagner had no success, no job. He had nothing. He was starving at the age of 30. But instead of doing something he could make money from, he wrote an opera to be performed over four days and planned to build a new opera house. Nothing could be more different from the experience of the 19th century”

Do all Beethoven’s symphonies have something radical or unique to say on their behalf, to defend their place in the canon?

Ádám Fischer slowly exhales. This is not his favourite part of the interview, to differentiate in terms of where his affection lies.

“I do not want to choose. It is not my job to choose. My job is to convince you that they are all good, although it is clear that some are better than others.”

More than 40 years ago Ádám Fischer’s music teacher told him that only the symphonies carrying the numbers 3, 5, 7 and 9 were “really important.”

“We were told this before having even listened to them! I, personally, have had problems with No. 8, but I have to say that I have overcome them. This was the symphony that took me the longest time to appreciate.”

Because it is the most or the least complex one?

“It’s difficult to understand what it wants to communicate to us.”

“Generally, the symphonies all want to tell us about the pending revolution building up, taking form, and breaking out, both ‘Eroica’, The Fifth, The Seventh and the Ninth symphonies as well as Fidelio. The Eighth, however, is in a way more modern than the Ninth, because it does not care whether or not it affects the audience. It does not want to draw people in. People rarely like it to begin with. It is somehow post-revolutionary. It has a gentleness and a sort of wisdom that you associate with old age, with a more mature personality which also makes room for forgiveness.”

“With his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven is back in full form as the young revolutionary”.

– Michael Bo

 

PERFORMANCE PRACTICE

Beethoven‘s symphonies pose without any doubt one of the greatest artistic challenges to every conductor.

Of the countless questions about what an authentic interpretation means, I am addressing only one here, namely the problem of Beethoven’s metronome markings. As we know, the first metronomes were built in Vienna during Beethoven’s lifetime and he did then give metronome markings to his pieces (retrospectively in most cases).

For generations, the musical world has debated the subject of how to approach these metronome markings and to what extent a close adherence to Beethoven’s tempi must form an integral part of a faithful rendering of Beethoven’s work. In my student days it was still generally believed that Beethoven’s metronome was faulty, on the grounds that the tempi were too fast and unplayable. So, the markings had to be wrong. Later, especially with the advent of period instrument ensembles, some recordings were made which were unwavering in their strict adherence to Beethoven’s tempi, for better or worse so to speak.

I believe that neither a careless approach which ignores Beethoven’s metronome markings nor a relentless adherence to them can do justice to the music.

Tempi in music depend on numerous factors, which is why, in general, I do not think much of following tempo indications uncritically. Tempi rely very much on the acoustics of a particular concert venue, in this case the studio, and the personality of the individual musicians also plays an important role. The tempo must be flexible and keep its fluency.

In short, the tempo, rather than being an end in itself, is a means to achieve the desired musical result. That is why it is virtually impossible to define a tempo bureaucratically by the use of metronome markings. However, the most important task for us conductors must be to study the composer’s intentions as carefully as possible in order to be able to interpret and communicate them correctly. First and foremost I must attempt to understand the reasons why Beethoven provided particular tempo indications and what he hoped to achieve with them.

I have examined, to the best of my knowledge and belief, the problem of Beethoven’s different metronome markings over a long period, to help me understand what might be their function, their meaning. This intensive study of Beethoven’s symphonies has given me new insights into them. In many cases it has brought me very close to the tempo that Beethoven specified. But not always. And when I felt that I could do more justice to the musical expression of the work by using a rather different tempo than asked for in the metronome markings, I have not been strict in the adherence to the indicated tempos. To me that appeared to be a more honest artistic approach.

Studying the possibilities of interpretation for Beethoven’s symphonies is a lifelong process. The recordings we present here are in a sense a snapshot of the ideas that I held at the time they were made.

– Ádám Fischer


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