A great Mahler 9 in a great Mahler city: Fischer and the BFO in Amsterdam
Granted, Amsterdam has been spoiled with great Mahler performances. Ever since the legendary Willem Mengelberg led the Ninth Symphony’s debut on 2 May 1918, it has been one continuous love-fest between Mahler and the Dutch, culminating for many (at least among the living) in the Mahler Feest of 1995, when the line-up of orchestral greats was unsurpassed: Rattle, Haitink, Abbado, Chailly, Muti, the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic, and of course, the Concertgebouw Orchestra. So as Maestro Fischer walked down the famously uncomfortable steps last evening to join the Budapest Festival Orchestra, history must have weighed heavy. Augment that with the bombastic title of the series – World Famous Symphony Orchestras – and the tension could, unsurprisingly, be felt on both sides of the footlights (bachtrack.com)
What makes for great Mahler, a memorable Ninth Symphony? The piece itself is awe-inspiring even unheard, dead on the page: the massive woodwinds, all those horns, those delicate solos, the symphonic form at the peak of its evolution. Bringing it to life is no mean feat: there is simply so much going on. Yet if there is a moment in music history that cannot survive a control-freak Kapellmeister, dividing measure from stamping meaure, it Mahler 9.
Fischer held his reins tight in the opening bars, making me nearly regret seeing the performance as opposed to luxuriously hearing a recording blindly. But first nerves melted away and he let his trusted team of superb musicians come into their own in a first movement that truly had it all: sweet innocence, succulent summer sounds, dark threatening clouds of that still to come. In a recent television interview, Fischer afforded Mahler a generous dose of clairvoyance: “…you can hear he anticipated all the horrors of the 20th century, that world war was near.” Fischer’s trumpets were indeed ominous, taut and clean, crackling bullets whirring above heads ducked into foxholes. At nearly half an hour, the first movement of the Ninth is a symphony in itself, supremely constructed, mature and rich melodic and harmonic development; similar to an immersive film, it’s over before you know it.
A second moment of regret at this live event came too soon after a glorious first movement closed; Fischer walked away so the public immediately started to babble. The orchestra then tuned up; the public babbled even louder. All those beautiful sounds in our heads, squashed! Yes, the Concertgebouw has exquisite acoustics, but noisy listeners never sound good. Fischer’s second descent of the stairs was decidedly languid; it served well to quiet the capacity crowd.
Slavic DNA led us in the dances of the second movement, organic delays in the downbeat: bended knees, the slight wait and then the contagious Um-Pa-PAH! Hungarians performing what they do best, the melancholy dance steps signaling the fleeting joy of mortal life. The magnificent sonority of Fischer’s strings clearly originates from the East. Thankfully there was no wait, walk or tune between the second and third movements: Fischer forged ahead. The urgency in the contrast between the last twinkle of the second movement and the hurricane commencement of the third was breathtaking. Every single entrance in the fugue, by flutes or by double basses, was as clean, urgent, articulated, and in dynamic balance as every other. Such speed and exactitude is rarely heard. The only disappointment here was the now coughing crowd. How can one physically even dare, in the same room as such exquisite pianos? Collective shame has not yet manifested itself enough to keep the nonchalant cougher quiet, not even for Mahler, not even in Amsterdam.
In the opening hymn of the fourth and final movement, the attitude was glorious and serene as opposed to sentimental. The genius juxtapositions of major and minor modulations – the veritable sound equivalent of our bittersweet human condition – was magnificent in Fischer’s hands. A highly principled man, cut of “Urtext” cloth and extremely respectful of the composer’s intentions, Fischer supported Mahler’s symphonic swan-song in every detail. All the long, long unisons (with the strings and the piccolo) were glistening. Compliments to the piccolo solo, but then again to all the soloists (what a magnificent flute, a gorgeous oboe, the horns!). Orchestra? Rather an extra-extra-large chamber music ensemble.
Witnessing the Budapest Festival Orchestra warm up was once a backstage perk. They did it with scales, and with a Bach chorale, by heart, all eyes on the maestro, their Maestro.
Budapest Festival is clearly one of the world’s greatest orchestras and it is led by a dedicated and erudite musical giant. I can’t wait to get my hands on the new CD release. Should anyone dare cough while we enjoy it at home: banishment!