Interview with Iván Fischer, conductor of Budapest Festival Orchestra

By Raymond Beegle

Iván Fischer conducts the Budapest Festival Orchestra

Iván Fischer conducts the Budapest Festival Orchestra

Music, we are told, is the great communicator. The music business is a different matter. Instead of sitting across from Ivan Fischer, observing his gestures, hearing the inflections of his speech, his tone of voice, his hesitations, in a word, getting to the essence of the man and the artist, questions had to be channeled, by way of the music business, through a publicity office in New York, relayed to Ivan Fischer’s “team,” and finally given to the maestro himself. I frankly had doubts that they would reach him unedited, or if there would even be a reply. My doubts were proven wrong, and although I still have little idea of Ivan Fischer, the personality, I have some of his thoughts on issues important to those of us who love great music and the message it carries. It seems we must reply on Rachmaninoff’s words, “…if they want to know who I am, let them listen to my music.” I offer my apologies to Maestro Fischer for mistakenly attributing his brother Adam’s performance of the Eroica Symphony, to himself!

Beegle: I greatly admire your recording of the Eroica Symphony. Some years after its completion Beethoven wrote to Goethe “I love the truth more than anything.”  What do you think is that truth he speaks of and how is it expressed in his music?

Fischer: There may be a misunderstanding here, because I have no CD of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, only N. 4,6 and 7 at Channel Classics. N. 1 and 5 will be released soon.  But I am happy to answer your question regarding Beethoven:

Honesty is essential to every artist. Beethoven was one of the first musicians (together with authors and poets like Jean Paul, Byron and others) who didn't serve the taste of the aristocracy but expressed their own feelings. Beethoven's truth is being true to himself. And of course, being a genius, his vision said something very truthful about the world.

Beegle: What do you think of Shostakovich’s remark (according to Solomon) Volkov) that Stalin could not possibly have loved Beethoven? Does that have something to do with the truth Beethoven speaks of?

Fischer: I am doubtful of this claim. Beethoven's music is strongly connected to the  ideas of the period after the French revolution. The ideals were liberty, equality, fraternity. You can hear these thoughts in the 9th Symphony.  Stalin may not have believed in liberty, but the central thought of the communists was equality.  All revolutions were celebrated and honored by them. Fortunately Beethoven didn't need to choose between liberty and equality. Stalin unfortunately did.

Beegle: Regarding that mysterious word, I’m sure you know the end of Tolstoy’s Sevastopol 1885 where he says “The hero of my tale… whom I love with all the power of my soul… who is and will always be beautiful… is truth.”  Do you think that Beethoven and Tolstoy were speaking of the same thing?

Fischer: Yes, I do.  Tolstoy's characters are not good or evil, but truthful human beings with virtues and weaknesses. Beethoven's music expresses mostly Beethoven himself,  with his dark and bright side. For example there is a lot of aggression in Beethoven's obsessed sforzantos. But he also has the biggest heart. Beethoven would be a good character in a novel by Tolstoy.

Beegle: When I was a young man I knew Kyriena Siloti, whose father Aleksander, studied with your great Franz Liszt. I had the pleasure, or privilege, of hearing her say “Liszt told father…” Often she said “Liszt told father that the only purpose of virtuosity is to express the truth in the music.” Do you think Liszt had in mind something similar to Beethoven and Tolstoy, or do they all perhaps have different ideas and feelings about the word?

Fischer: Their characters were very different. Liszt had a lot of vanity. We shouldn't forget that (next to Paganini) he was the first virtuoso soloist. who gave recitals alone for a whole evening. Look at his hairstyle. But he was also a romantic genius searching for truth. I don't question his honesty in his compositions.

Beegle:  Furtwängler said that there are three major elements in a concert: the conductor, the orchestra, and the audience. What is your experience regarding this? What will be heard of Brahms’ first symphony or the Bruch Concerto, by the thousands at the Hollywood Bowl, while the elite, sitting at tables down front, eat their supper and drink their wine, and the rest of the throng listen to the music through a sound system?  How do conditions like these effect you and your marvelous musicians?

Fischer: In each audience there is at least one person, for whom it is a deep spiritual experience to hear music. He or she may have a life changing experience. I have met these people and kept contact with them. I always perform for these few. There are probably more of them than we assume.

Beegle: What about the impact of history on a performance?  Take, for example the first performance of Fidelio at the Salzburg festival just after the Second World War. The story of liberation from a cruel tyranny seemed to have ignited the orchestra, singers, conductor, and audience. Have you conducted a performance under the sway of some great event, positive or negative, that made its presence felt in the music making?

Fischer: This a great question. You are right, certain works actually need the historical  occasion.  A routine performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony can be meaningless, or it is very hard to convey and experience the sense of jubilation at a normal performance.  In the nineties during the Balkan war I invited choruses from Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia to sing together. 800 singers from war regions joined the Budapest Festival Orchestra. I felt that finally we were truthful to this master piece. There was an incredible atmosphere on this open air concert in Budapest.

Beegle:  And the roll of history on a more expansive scale? Have we listeners or performers on the other side of the nineteenth century, having witnessed the shameful crimes humankind has committed and continues to commit against itself, been robbed of feeling what Schumann wished to express in his Spring Symphony, or Schubert wished to express in Dem Unendlichen?

Fischer: People are not angels. Although some of them are. But there are evil characteristics, too. Music reminds us to be good. It seems to work slowly: there are no more slaves in the United States, witches aren't burned by the church any more, soldiers are not drafted to kill or be killed, Jews are not poisoned in gas chambers. Cruelty is still there but there is a tendency of less and less cruelty. Compare our age to the Middle Ages. I am optimistic. As I said music works.

Beegle:  And the hall itself, aside from its acoustics. Does the hall’s history have its say in a performance? You have spoken about bringing concerts to some of Hungary’s ruined synagogues. I recall hearing Schubert and Beethoven in the immense synagogues of Kosice and Nove Saad, built when there was a vast Jewish population. You know that the congregations were herded into those rooms to await deportation and death during the Second World War. The few that were not murdered and who returned, found their beautiful temples appropriated by the government and turned into “cultural centers.” Would your music making ring with a different tone in such places?

Fischer:  One of the abandoned synagogues was turned into a table tennis club. There are no more Jews in that village. We pushed the tables to the walls and performed in front of the local audience wearing kipas, reminding them that we were in a synagogue. We performed music by Jewish-born composers and a rabbi told them stories of their earlier Jewish neighbors.

Beegle: I wonder if you would comment on another equally mysterious word, “music.” What do you think of these three remarks, listed here in sequence, by Schubert, Shostakovich and a prominent living American composer?

                        “What I feel in my heart I GIVE to the world and that is an end to it.”

                        “Music illumines a man through and through. It is his last hope and final refuge.”

                        “My father owned a music store, so the first thing I learned about music is that it       was a business.”

Fischer:  Music is a divine gift and tradition. We learned this art by imitating Orpheus, the greatest musician of all time. He learned his art from his mother, the muse Calliope. The muses were daughters of Zeus.

Beegle:  What do you feel is your major obligation in the service of music?

Fischer:  To dissipate clouds.

Maestro Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra will play at the Hollywood Bowl on August 1, and the Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall on August 4 in a program of Haydn, Handel, Dvořák and Mozart.

Raymond Beegle reviews classical music and opera for the New York Observer and Fanfare Magazine. For many years he was Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese. Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.