Fischer in Copenhagen

After wowing the world with their Beethoven symphonies, Ádám Fischer and his Danish orchestra of 25 years will return to the Hungarian conductor’s first love this winter: Haydn. It won’t be any less dramatic.

[This article originally appeared, in Danish, in the December 2020 edition of Klassisk]

It’s official: if you want to buy someone a new Beethoven recording this Christmas, it should be the composer’s complete symphonies from the Danish Chamber Orchestra and its conductor Ádám Fischer. The juries of the Opus Klassik and International Classical Music Awards think so, anyway. ‘I find these performances utterly fascinating,’ concluded Gramophone magazine in the UK. ‘These renditions showcase Beethoven’s revolutionary side in a way few other sets even get close to,’ wrote America’s Fanfare.

When I hear Fischer rehearsing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the basement of the DR Concert Hall in Copenhagen on a Tuesday afternoon in September, there is not so much revolution in the air as fascination. Fischer and the musicians seem more interested in how the music works than in its political message. The quietness attracts them as much the loudness. It’s all about the detail: how one phrase tapers down and another one begins.

The rehearsal finishes early. Moments later I look up from my chair in the corner to see Fischer stood at my feet – a 72-year-old with the proportions and agility of a pre-pubescent boy. He wants to do the interview right away, so he can listen to some of the orchestra’s musicians playing chamber music before they go home. We head from this distinctive space with its stencilled wall murals of great musicians – Van Morrison and yes, Adám Fischer among them – to his dressing room. We start with Beethoven.

Good Orchestras / Bad Orchestras

It was the former boss of this orchestra’s previous incarnation the DR Sinfonietta, Tatjana Kandel, whom we have to thank for the Beethoven – and for bringing Fischer to Denmark in the first place. ‘It was very much her idea and she was insistent,’ says Fischer of the executive who now decides what the DR Symphony Orchestra plays. ‘So I conducted Beethoven, it went well, and they wanted to record it all. I asked why: there are so many recordings already. But we did, and just before we got to the Ninth, catastrophe.’

He refers to the disbanding of the chamber orchestra by DR, after which the ensemble reformed with private funding, retaining Fischer as its conductor and assuming the Anglicised moniker Danish Chamber Orchestra. Is it true that in the early years after the split from DR in 2014, he offered to conduct for free? ‘Oh yes. I mean, I can’t always afford to because I have a big family, but I wanted to. I wanted to save the orchestra.’ Were there times when he felt like walking away? ‘No, because I was angry. I was angry at the people who didn’t understand anything about it and I wanted to prove them wrong.’

He may not have proved them wrong, exactly. The orchestra’s current success has arguably proved it didn’t need DR’s parenting. Still, its rebirth is compared by Fischer to a fairytale: ‘We got a second life. Nobody would have thought it, but we did.’ Over the next few years, the privately funded orchestra re-recorded all of the Beethoven symphonies, this time including the Ninth. It was a blessing in disguise, says Fisher: the new recordings were much better than the originals.

The sound of the DCO in classical and early romantic repertoire is unique because it has been formed over more than two decades, Fischer explains. ‘I can do things with this orchestra that I can’t to anywhere else, partly because nobody works with them on this repertoire except for me and because we have been working on it for years – we pick up where we left off. I did Beethoven’s Eroica with the Vienna Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic last year. They were great concerts but it would have been very, very dangerous to try the things we do here, with the rubato and so on.’ A few hours later, a DCO musician describes to me the atmosphere Fischer creates as ‘very liberating indeed.’

Fischer talks about ingrained traditions in playing Beethoven, explaining that limited rehearsal time means conductors ‘keep always with the tempo’ whereas a pianist or cellist playing Beethoven will tend to move more freely, as the DCO does. ‘I always know, if there is a guest joining us who is used to playing in another orchestra: they will enter early during one of our long pauses.’

There is no more experienced conductor than Fischer currently working in Denmark. He has conducted Wagner at Bayreuth, is an honorary member of the Vienna State Opera and regularly works with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Dresden Staatskapelle. Does he believe in the hierarchies that put those orchestras above all others? ‘Of course the sound of the Staatskapelle is something else. Same with Vienna, which has a long tradition that I admire. But there is no “best” orchestra even if the Americans want to list them No 1, No 2 and so on. That’s not what interpretation is about. I am paid to give an orchestra an interesting challenge: to open its fantasies and allow it to play differently. Like a stage director, you have to find out the personality of the actor and use it. That’s why there’s no way I’d ask the Vienna Philharmonic to use the same bowings we use here.’ On a video interview published by the Berliner Philharmoniker, Fischer’s work in Denmark is a major discussion point: ‘we have developed something unique,’ the conductor tells the Berlin oboe player Christoph Hartmann.

Back to Haydn

When the young Ádám was 4, his father took him to hear a performance of Haydn’s Symphony No 94, the ‘Surprise’, and informed him that the ‘surprise’ in question would be a sudden, loud timpani thwack. But the moment had none of the impact the young boy was expecting, and he knew who was to blame. When his father took him backstage to meet the conductor, Fischer asked why the timpani stroke had not been louder. ‘When you grow up,’ the conductor apparently said to the 4-year-old, ‘you can become a conductor and can have that timpani stroke as loud as you like.’

Fischer would become the first conductor to record all 106 symphonies by Haydn, recordings he has since grown frustrated with and claims he would do differently. ‘Haydn has been with me all my life,’ he says; ‘Beethoven’s symphonies would not be what they are without the passion and drama of the symphonies of Haydn. People say he’s nice and harmless, but that’s the worst thing you can say about Haydn. If you play it like that, it just sounds boring.’

On 1 January, Fischer will extend the tradition he established in 2018 of performing Haydn’s the oratorio The Creation to start the New Year in Budapest. This time, however, the orchestra will be the DCO, following a performance in Copenhagen on 6 December. The oratorio, first heard in Vienna in 1798, is described by Fischer as the composer’s ‘crowning achievement’; it is seen as a pinnacle of enlightenment thinking, placing the Biblical creation story in inverted commas while celebrating the spirit of mankind, human love and the beauty of the earth. ‘It has everything in it,’ says Fischer; ‘it represents a fresh start – far better music for the New Year than Viennese waltzes or even Beethoven.’

The plans were laid long before the pandemic hit, but there are few better pieces with which to reboot after a global crisis than this: ‘it is about a new world arising,’ Fischer says. Haydn himself had some pertinent words about his own piece. In 1802, he responded to a fan-letter with a description of how he wrote The Creation: ‘When I was struggling with all kinds of obstacles, a secret voice would whisper to me: “there are so few happy and contented people in this world, sorrow and grief follow them everywhere; perhaps your labour will become a source…from which they will derive peace and refreshment.”’

Fischer admits that the work has taken on new poignancy given the state of the planet. Otherwise, he approaches the piece like a child in a candy store. He relishes its depiction of insects and lions – demonstrating different styles of roaring and buzzing for me. ‘I see it as very naïve and honest, just like the paintings of Giotto. And the naïve way to look at it is also the wisest, rather like how children open their eyes and see how beautiful the world is. The end is just perfect, with Adam and Eve: nature is beautiful, but not without love.’

New World Order

Fischer’s appreciation of nature has taken on new resonance since the lockdown closed Europe in March. He spent the first three months in his brother-in-law’s house on a nature reserve outside Hamburg. ‘That was a completely new experience in my life,’ he says; ‘unfortunately I liked it very much! I didn’t do anything. There were a lot of animals and sea birds and very few humans. It was an interesting experience. I had philosophical thoughts but soon I started to think about the challenges facing the profession. For a while it looked like the conductor’s profession was in danger: all sorts of musicians could play together but we are the only ones who need 30 or 40 other people to join in.’

For the next three months, live music started to creep back – including in Düsseldorf, where Fischer is Principal Conductor of the city’s symphony orchestra. ‘In Düsseldorf, having not played for three months, we started to play again but people didn’t dare to come. Even those who logged on to our livestreams and were very enthusiastic about it didn’t come to the concerts. Of course there was as special intensity from the musicians but some of them were afraid of the virus too. It will take a lot of time before it’s back to how it was.’

A silver lining, for Fischer, is the shift in repertoire that naturally followed. ‘The last 100 years have been very bad for chamber music,’ he says, ‘maybe because people feel that for their money there must be a lot of people on stage who play very loud. A collateral benefit of the whole Covid-19 story is that chamber music is more important. I also see that the big orchestras like the Vienna Philharmonic are now being forced to discover Haydn and Mozart again because they can’t play their Bruckner and Mahler. That is a development.’

The man who showed such solidarity with his stricken DCO also argues fiercely for the protection of freelance and period-instrument orchestras who didn’t have salaries to fall back on when the lockdown started. ‘The best musicians are freelance,’ he says; ‘I am dead against the injustice in the system: that if you play a modern instrument you can have a salary and if you play on a period instrument then you can’t. It means the specialists in Bach and so on suffer much more as do musicians like these [DCO]. That’s why we wanted to do the Beethoven, to have a project for these musicians.’

He has been just as outspoken on more sensitive issues, such as the collapse in democracy in his native Hungary, where the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has curtailed the press and rigged the judiciary. ‘I left Hungary in 1969, before your father was born,’ he laughs. ‘I’m very unhappy about what happens there but my own father knew it: he said after the iron curtain fell, that Hungary would become a fascist country. I am very sorry to say that he was right.’

Despite not living in Hungary for half a century, Fischer still works there regularly and oversees two annual events in Budapest, including the annual Wagner festival in June. Has he ever felt pressure to behave in a certain way? ‘Yes. If I speak about Hungarian politics to a Vienna newspaper then they get angry. And I was told, if I continue like this I will lose the money for my festivals.’ So why does he continue to speak out? ‘If I am not worth a concert, they should not book me. If I am worth a concert then they should book me and pay me regardless of what I am saying.’

The message of The Creation is an optimistic one – rebirth and all its opportunity. Fischer’s conversation is scattered with laughter; his big grin and short neck give him the appearance of a benevolent monkey. Surely, after everything that happened with his Danish orchestra, he is optimistic about the future? ‘I hope that the EU will survive, that we still start listening to smart people, and that democracy will fight against fake news and social media. I want to be optimistic. But we are on the brink of…’ And with that, there’s a knock at the dressing room door, and Fischer is whisked away.

Ádám Fischer

Born 1949

Sang with his brother Iván (conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra) as one of the Three Boys in Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Hungarian National Opera; as an adult he would become the company’s Music Director before resigning in protest

Studied with Hans Swarowsky in Vienna and Franco Ferrara in Sienna

Debut at the Vienna State Opera in 1973; a long collaboration followed, and he was made an Honorary Member of the company in 2017

Founded the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra in 1987, uniting musicians from either side of the iron curtain

Appointed chief conductor of the DR Sinfonietta in 1998