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Ivan FischerPhoto: Marco Borggreve

The Ninth on its own is still attributed to Beethoven, but Mahler follows close. I am not certain that we won’t first think of Mahler in twenty years’ time, and Beethoven will receive some sort of qualifying attribute. Unfortunately, the feeling is more familiar than that: Beethoven intended to crash heaven’s gates with mankind’s support, while Mahler lies on his bed alone and listens to his own heartbeat fail. As long as he hears it, it beats. (nol.hu)

We as the audience commit the same mistake as far as both pieces of music are concerned: we listen to them in the wrong order. We know that the symphony ends in the Ode to Joy or death, and accordingly, the first three movements are only a prelude to the emotional swing-swang. We excuse ourselves when playing Beethoven’s as he too pretends as if he had written the first three movements only to discard them. Mahler refers to nothing of a similar nature. If he had any bad forebodings, he was not officially writing his last symphony and did not want to tell us something while alive  that he would not have been able to say after he died. Something similar happened to Richard Strauss when he suddenly revived when he was dying, and said it was exactly like Death and Transfiguration. However, Mahler refrained from such advertisement tricks at the end.

All this is important because Iván Fischer conducted the piece as if he did not know how it would end. He avoided starting the symphony with a desperate and dark chime of the bells, instead, he began with a slow-paced andante, ignoring the composer’s curriculum vitae. This is not easy to accept as one might feel indignant for not finding either depth or the closing gates of heaven, and may ask if this really is a symphony? Yes, it really is. And one of elemental power at that, as the strings of the harp snapped clangorously, the trumpets rasped somewhere deep in the orchestra, and the tuba-player inserted the sordino in the elephants’ chamber-pot made of brass. I quickly forgot every reservation and did not miss Klemperer’s divine chaos for example: we didn’t need any greater mystery than a symphonic orchestra on its own. I quietly say that the strings were no match for the winds as regards the emotional beauty and homogeneity of the sounds, and that the otherwise fantastic guest concertmaster, Giovanni Guzzo, gave a bit too much vibration to his solos, which made them sound fairly wobbly and sentimental.

The piece itself was a more emphatic experience than the excuses. Iván Fischer’s ideas were perfectly justified as the symphony continued to build, just like a house constructed right from its foundation. One was clearly able to sense what follows and why, and when we finally arrived at the end in this manner, I did not feel I was deprived of anything. As if this was exactly the core essence of Mahler’s oeuvre, and as if we were always watching this phenomenon in reverse order. It was Mahler who put his life and views into symphonies thus fulfilling the mission that Beethoven entrusted upon him. True. But not in a way that we look at what happened to him and then try and put it into music, or musically experience it, as the only things that happened to him happen to most of us too, i.e. he struggled with career and family until he died. What we need to understand is the symphony is what happened to Mahler. It is neither life put into music nor the universe squeezed into philharmonic, but this is life and the universe themselves. A song of the Earth. And of the sun and the stars.

Miklós Fáy