Ivan Fischer’s Brahms 3 and Serenade 2

Brahms: Symphony No. 3; Serenade No. 2

  • Ivan Fischer (conductor); Budapest Festival Orchestra
  • Recorded 2020
  • Channel Classics CCS SA 43821 (1 SACD)

Ivan Fischer has taken his time with the Brahms symphonies. He first embarked on the cycle in 2009 with the first symphony and the Haydn Variations; he now concludes it with the tricky Third and the Second Serenade.

Like the previous instalments in his Brahms cycle, there are so many wonderful things about these performances. Fischer has always been an interpretative force to be reckoned with, one whose intelligence and musicality informs everything he does. And so it is with his Third. The music unfolds with uncommon fluidity and inevitability. Fischer takes a primarily gentle and lyrical view, and is typically sensitive with regards to phrasing and dynamics. These qualities are particularly evident in the slower movements, where Fischer is particularly attuned to the Brahmsian innigkeit; you will not hear them more exquisitely played. Yet he’s not afraid to touch up the music in certain parts to make some expressive or coloristic points: in the last movement, observe the horn’s long, accented note played as a stopped note at letter G, or the strings played sul ponticello at letter H, a nasal and unsettling sound. Or witness how he lets the strings play with a tasteful amount of portamento at letter F in the second movement to give the music a beautifully singing quality and to underscore the wonderfully poignant outpouring of emotion.

Furthermore, under Fischer’s leadership, the Budapest Festival Orchestra has developed into what is unquestionably one of the world’s greatest orchestras. The sheer beauty of execution is arresting: the strings’ flexible, mahogany-like tone, the woodwinds’ supple phrasing (particularly evident in the Second Serenade), and the ideal sectional balances and clarity of texture, all impress from start to finish.

So what is the problem? These performances badly lack fire and tension. This issue is most evident in the Third symphony, Brahms’ most succinctly dramatic musical statement. The very opening two wind chords are disappointing: they are both marked forte in the score, but Fischer makes the second chord peter out somewhat and allows it to detach before the full orchestra abruptly enters, a classic case of effect without cause. Indeed, Fischer wisely notes in the booklet how these two chords should sound like a microcosm of the work’s two battling forces, that between good and evil; but by having the second chord die down, the opening just sounds like a limp, non-committal addendum rather than the heralding of a grand symphonic argument. Beyond that opening, all the theoretically turbulent climaxes lack power, even in the last movement which is otherwise taken at an exciting tempo; it’s as if Fischer was reluctant to reveal, as it were, Brahms’ burning breast concealed beneath his bushy beard. The pastoral Second Serenade goes better, but the Scherzo and finale lacks vivacity and sparkle under this laboured tempo, despite some characterful articulation in the woodwinds.

In sum, despite all the considerable merits of the playing and interpretation, and the excellent recorded sound, this is a single-minded performance; it reveals Brahms’ introspective side and his considerable craftsmanship without for one moment hinting at the passion or liveliness equally present in the music, and inherent in Brahms in general. Conductors like Barbirolli, Wand, or more recently Nelsons have been able to combine these two sides of Brahms in perfect harmony; Fischer does not. Accordingly, I have enormous respect for what Fischer and his team have achieved here. But I’m afraid it’s not a performance that I love.


These are gorgeously played and intelligently interpreted performances of works that also require fire and life; in the latter regard, Fischer and team are sadly not up to par.

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