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Mahler Symphony No.5.

Budapest Festival Orchestra – Iván Fischer (kultifilter.hu)

“Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death.” – said Gustav Mahler after the premiere of Symphony No. 5 on 18 October 1904. And there was prophecy in that: although contemporary audiences were unable to come round to his grandiose works that require serious attention and deep sensitivity, today’s finest orchestras include, almost without exception, at least one of his pieces in their programme – as a key to success – thanks to the cult that developed around Mahler in the early 1960s.

In 1904, however, the situation was different, and the composer knew it well: “Oh, heavens, what is the public to make of this chaos in which new worlds are forever being engendered, only to crumble into ruin the next moment? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breath-taking, iridescent, and flashing breakers?”

The preceding four symphonies were also composed by destroying sizes and forms and with a desire to tell everything; nevertheless, Symphony No. 5 marks a turning point in many ways. For a while, Mahler abandons the vocal parts in his works (Symphony Nos. 5, 6 and 7 contain no vocal movement) and accentuates polyphony instead, while the phase of orchestration virtually disappears from the composing process: from then on, each of his pieces is basically written for an orchestra. Although earlier symphonies were composed on the piano and orchestrated later on, that is not possible any more: “The individual parts are so hard to play that they really call for accomplished soloists. Because of my thorough knowledge of the orchestra and its instruments the boldest passages and rhythms suddenly came to me” – he said once.

Mahler divided the five movements of Symphony No. 5 into three parts: the first two are actually one long funeral march, which is followed by the third fast-moving (but occasionally hasty) movement Scherzo designated as “Part II”, after which the love confession and the increasingly cheerful final movement together constitute Part III. Grief, dance, despair, love confession, celebration: holding the complexity of the message together requires thorough preparation from both the conductor and the orchestra.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer are considered one of the most authentic interpreters of Mahler’s music, so I attended the performance at the 2012 Mahler Festival in the hope of a unique experience. Perhaps it was due to my high expectations, but at the end of the concert I was disappointed: I found the production weary and dull. When it turned out that the piece was going to be recorded, I was delighted, because Iván Fischer is able to adapt well to studio conditions, and the publisher Channel Classics has proven several times that the recordings they make are of excellent quality.

The released recording turned out to be very special indeed.

After the famous trumpet motif at the beginning, the first movement begins with such anger as if the notes of the Final Judgement were pealing. The explosion leaves a gloomy, heavy and dark atmosphere behind, which pervades peoples’ souls. I was also surprised that despite having known the composition for years and having attended many of its performances, it just dawned on me that Mahler condensed such cruel pain and relentless sadness into this movement. There is absolutely no sign of vivacity, the low-pitched parts may never have been so significant. The concert requires complete attention, the sound of the orchestra and the concept behind the performance reveal the individual parts exactly like an X-ray, which – along with the tempo changes typical of Iván Fischer as well as the characteristic performance of the Festival Orchestra’s musicians – do not let attentions wander, despite the average tempo. (I cannot neglect to mention that this particular recording is the longest I know: it is 74 minutes long, 5 minutes longer than the average.)

I do not know whether it is part of the concept, but except for the fourth movement, the strings were much less dominant in the symphonic sound than in other recordings. As a result, the violins – despite their strong presence – never mask the sound of other instruments. This is a very important fact, since the complex polyphony of the second movement can only be comprehended this way for instance.

This might be due to the transparent sound or the slow tempo, but I feel some uncertainty here and there, and the entire piece now appears problematic and extremely complex. As if it gave a glimpse of a world too big for the normal boundaries of consolable grief. The second movement leads to dreary solitude (the poignant scene of the low-pitched strings in the third minute is unforgettable), which cannot be helped by the light at the end of the movement either (which reminds us of the fanfare towards the end of the piece).

The Scherzo is again very different from the usual. The most striking feature is its extremely slow tempo; we are almost at Celibidache’s level. And this is exactly what I disliked most in the concert back then: the movement loses its dance-like character in this kind of performance. It is the same today, but the idea is much clearer now. It seems that a truly lively dance cannot be expected after such antecedents; the movement, sometimes so close to the grotesque, progresses reluctantly. The complex polyphony unfolds in the loneliness of the room once more, the experience is sometimes even close to revelation: as if I was hearing it for the first time. Yet the appearance of the parts and the dimensional effect of the recording become uncertain here and there, which is somewhat of a regression in relation to the previous two Mahler recordings.

The fourth movement finally brings complete satisfaction. Here there is already a whole panoply of strings (supplemented with a harp). I do not know whether the sound engineer helped, but their sound is much fuller and more powerful than in the preceding three movements. This movement is known even among those who are not familiar with Mahler’s works, since it was an important piece of music in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film entitled Death in Venice, and it is often performed independently. From Mahler’s students, Bruno Walter and Willem Mengelberg left behind recordings of it for future generations. Their reading might sound surprising to those who know modern recordings very well: although the instruction in the partiture says it should be performed “very slowly”, these two recordings are probably the fastest piece of the discography: ranging from 7 to 9 minutes. The recording technique of the time may also have played a role in it (the material had to fit on the two sides of the gramophone disc), I still think that along with the player piano rolls that recorded Mahler’s play on the piano, they provide an authentic view of the composer’s idea of average tempo. Conductors today are likely to slow the Adagietto down to 11-12 minutes, which changes the movement into weepy sentiment.

I must say I could never place the popularity of this detail, but now I am beginning to understand. Even the Festival Orchestra’s performance was almost 11 minutes long, but an acceptable compromise between romanticism and sentimentalism, and finally I could really listen to the beautiful shades of the music as well as the arresting and comforting sound, which is now capable of relieving the tension generated by the previous three movements.

The final movement finally creates a cheerful mood, although – the highly dynamic sound notwithstanding – it does not reach the ecstasy heard on Markus Stenz’s recording or the dynamic momentum that Simon Rattle, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, shows from it. Although all the components are together, I feel deep relief behind the monumental orchestral cavalcade.

I do not know whether the goal was indeed to record the darkest Mahler’s Fifth, but the fact is that Iván Fischer has something to say about the piece. Makers of the recording were not driven by the need to set the standard (it is highly questionable for me whether the piece can serve this purpose at all), but to show something that may never have been shown before. And this is just what they did.