We're going to have to create a new category here just for Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra as they sweep all before them in a stunning series of SACD recordings on Channel Classics. Following the simply superb Brahms First Symphony disc, now we have the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies of Beethoven, wrapping magisterial playing in sumptuous sound on both the Redbook and DSD layers.
Let us get my complaints out of the way right now. There are a few distracting incidental noises near the beginning of the Pastoral, and there are some phrases that André Cluytens shapes more perfectly in the Allegro ma non troppo. Fischer with his modern orchestra does not achieve the spectacular dynamics made possible at certain points by the use of period instruments. That's it.
There are of course many famous Beethoven cycles, and I was brought up on Klemperer and Toscanini, both of which go direct to the heart of this music. I must also mention Carlos Kleiber, who recorded star-quality versions of the Fifth and the Seventh, but sadly not the Fourth and Sixth. Nothing else could replace for me the integrity of Klemperer or the rhythmic security of Toscanini, not even the superbly recorded Solti or the immaculate and robust Haitink. Nothing, that is, until John Eliot Gardiner set the world on fire in the early nineties with his original instrument Archiv recordings. Insightful, spectacularly well played and recorded, they blew the cobwebs off these overplayed masterpieces with their insight into the tools Beethoven had at his disposal in his day.
Fischer is the first to displace Gardiner in my affections with this new recording. He brings all the brilliant rhythmic excitement of both Gardiner and Toscanini together with the warmth and grandeur of Klemperer. The Budapest Festival Orchestra just sounds so coherent, so immersed in the text, so careful to bring clarity at whatever speed the conductor imposes, that the listener can just sit back and revel in the delicious orchestration and grand sweep of the design, knowing no punches will be pulled, no phrasing will be mishandled, no point making imposed. It's a magical balance that's been achieved here, born directly from scrupulous discipline and attention to detail, combined with the crystal-clear shaping of the musical structures--that Klemperer-like quality that is reincarnated in Fischer.
The tempos are sometimes broad, but when Fischer feels the need, as in the third movement of the Pastoral, remarkably fast, without ever losing control. The storm movement is more convincing than I've ever heard it, even though Gardiner brings to it a wider range of dynamics. It's the rich texture of the sound and the extreme clarity that convince, not the volume. The music emerges throughout not as a picture of nature, but as a symphony suffused with inspirations from nature, a work of art by a master fully at home with the elemental forces of nature and the warm glow of summer. Not program music but not absolute music either.
The Fourth Symphony is often overlooked, sandwiched as it is between the revolutionary Eroica and the ever-popular Fifth Symphony. It has always been memorable for me since my father set the main theme to pop lyrics (How was I to know/that you would love me so). Fischer's performance is less revelatory perhaps than his Pastoral, but it is excellent in all respects and moved me to animated air conducting. I trust my instincts on this. If my hands take on a life of their own, the conductor is doing his job. The thrill and excitement of these brilliant compositions have taken full flight. How wonderful it is to have such clear musical lines combined with such rich orchestral color and texture.
If you give me another six discs of Fischer and the BFO, I fully expect to find the same qualities repeated. You either get it or you don't and these guys get it. We live in a golden age where such superb performances can be laid down and recorded in fine stereo and multi-channel sound for posterity.