Fischer makes impressive BSO debut with Nielsen, Brahms

October 17, 2014 at 11:42 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Thierry Fischer conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night in Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4. Photo: Dominick Reuter

The Boston Symphony Orchestra gave vivid performances of two moving but very different works Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Brahms’ majestic Piano Concerto No. 1 brought Rudolf Buchbinder back to Boston in his first appearance with the orchestra since 1986. And Carl Nielsen’s exuberant Symphony No. 4 showcased the bold interpretive powers of the evening’s conductor, Thierry Fischer, who made his BSO debut.

The Swiss-born conductor’s success at the podium Thursday night came under less-than-ideal circumstances—he was tapped to replace the originally scheduled conductor, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who died this past June. Thursday night’s concert was dedicated to Frühbeck’s memory.

Fischer has made a name for himself as conductor of the Utah Symphony Orchestra, and the word around Salt Lake City these days is that the ensemble enjoys a more polished sound and performs richer programming under his guide. Since being named music director of the USO in 2009, Fischer has led complete cycles of Beethoven and Mendelssohn symphonies. He is also intimately familiar with the music of Carl Nielsen, having conducted all six of the composer’s symphonies with the orchestra last season.

Composed between 1914 and 1915 against the backdrop of the First World War, the Fourth Symphony is one of Nielsen’s most dramatic works. Its four movements—played without pause—have no specific program. Yet the composer gave the symphony the title “The Inextinguishable” to stand for, as Nielsen himself put it, “everything that moves, that desires life.” It is music that cast rays of optimism in a world that was marching to war.

With deliberate gestures and a clear sense of direction, Fischer delivered the full Nielsen, pushing the tempo for energetic readings of the outer movements but laying back to let the chamber-music-like textures of the second flow like gentle waves. The BSO winds were in fine form, playing the soft, interlocking phrases with delicacy.

The third movement contains moments of austerity, where string lines sound coldly over sparsely placed timpani strokes. The BSO strings played with a bold, raspy tone well suited to the music’s razor-edged style, and the solid, bottom-heavy brasses answered with stentorian power when called upon. The dueling timpani that stand at the heart of the finale sounded with thunderous force.

The concert began with a deftly realized performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Composed between 1854 and 1858, the work is symphonic in scope but intricate, even chamber-like in its sensitivity.

Rudolf Buchbinder’s crisp, high-minded style and soft touch at the keyboard let the concerto speak for itself. The music of Brahms, Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart are a specialty for the Austrian pianist, and his interpretations result from careful study of the original musical sources. His personal library includes autograph scores for both of Brahms’ piano concertos.

The pianist’s historically informed reading of the First Concerto Thursday night captured the work’s enveloping sweetness. His rendering of the first movement’s themes ebbed and flowed, and each entrance was handled gracefully with smooth communication between piano and the orchestra. Flute, oboe, and horn lofted gorgeous solo lines to accompany him.

Still, there were times when one wanted a little more firepower as Buchbinder tended to hold back on the music’s more agitated passages, the cascading figures and cadenzas of the third movement having more sparkle than fury. Buchbinder, though, brought out some of the little-observed surprises laden within the score, adding dynamic shading here and a subtle dissonance there.

The most expressive music of the evening came in the second movement, which glowed like light through a church window. Buchbinder played the prayerful phrases with a tender, hushed tone, but was able to build those into full, yearning passages. Throughout, Fischer wove a silky bed of orchestral accompaniment, coaxing each phrase with the same loving care rendered by the pianist.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday at Symphony Hall.

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