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Trumpets and Demons - Prom 63 Mahler 1, Liszt Fischer

Trumpets and Demons! Marches and Dances of Death! In Prom 63, Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra set the Royal Albert Hall ablaze with an exceptionally powerful Mahler Symphony no 1. This was Mahler's Declaration of Independence, the calling card with which he burst onto the world. Already, Mahler is declaring concepts that he'll continue to develop until his death. Conducting this symphony is a test of any conductor's understanding of the composer. This was a truly inspired performance, revealing bold insights.

In Prom 63, Fischer’s approach was coloured by Liszt, whose influence on Mahler is underestimated, though Liszt himself dismissed Mahler’s Das klagende Lied in no uncertain terms. Mahler conducted the Mephisto Waltz no 1 (Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke) several times and knew it well. Mefistofele grabs the violin from a village fiddler. Bucolic folk tune transformed by the Devil himself. Folk idiom juxtaposed with surreal, and macabre. Freund’ Hein, who will appear in the sforzando section in Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. Liszt’s Faust Symphony springs to mind, and Mahler’s Eighth on the theme of Faust’s redemption.

If anything Liszt’s Totentanz connects even more strongly to Mahler’s music. Listen to those savage, angular ostinatos transformed by magical flurries, and think of Mahler’s relentless marches and the whips of bright sound that will come in Mahler. Although Mahler was himself a pianist, he wrote but one work for piano, and nothing concertante. His voice “was” the orchestra.

Liszt’s “voice” was the piano. Dejan Laziæ played with assertive authority, easily a match for this orchestra. How full bodied this piano sounds here, imitating the sonority in the orchestra, breaking away with flourishes that defy containment. In Mahler’s symphony, a vibrant new spirit emerges from struggle and breaks free. Mahler discarded the title “Titan” very early on, but it’s not irrelevant, since in Jean Paul’s Titan, a young hero becomes king.

Blumine is a serenade andante Mahler dropped after the Budapest premiere of the First Symphony in 1889. It’s a fragment from the now-lost incidental music to Der Trompeter von Säkkingen, hence the prominent part for trumpet. Although the piece has charm, its inclusion in performance is rarely successful, so Fischer respects the composer’s second thoughts. By placing Blumine between Mephisto no 1 and Totentanz, Fischer bridges Liszt with Mahler imaginatively.

Fischer’s Mahler 1 is audacious. Clear, pure trumpet calls, not quite a reveille. Fischer’s players make the call sound searching, soaring. From the low rumblings that follow, emerges a melody one recognizes as Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld, from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. It’s not accidental recycling. By incorporating song into the symphony, Mahler is adding an extra dimension to what the symphony might mean. “This moring I strode out across the fields”. The poet, (Mahler himself) has been jilted but he leaves his sorrows behind. A bird calls out Ei du! Gelt?. “Isn’t the world beautiful!”. Is this reveille the awakening of Spring and creative energy? These strings are certainly lush and verdant, evoking “alles Ton und Farbe”. But Fischer makes sure that danger creeps in. Full-toned triumph, but undercut with sharp, chilling alarums. As in the song, the poet takes nothing for granted.

A new theme emerges, balanced between peasant ländler and dreamy waltz. Again, trumpets and brass provide momentum and the section ends abruptly, emphatically. Then the haunted “Funeral March”, apparently suggested by Moritz von Schwind’s How the Animals buried the Hunter (click on image to enlarge). Another true Mahlerian contradiction. Death fells the hunter, power structures reversed. Fischer doesn’t overdo the pathos as some conductors do. These animals are grieving, not seeking revenge. The idea of nature as a cycle, that returns again and again in Mahler. Fischer connects the passage to the steady forward thrust of the march that flows throufghout this symphony, and indeed, through most of Mahler’s music. Next transit : the entry of another song from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Fischer knows why the march blends with the theme Auf der Straße steht ein Lindenbaum, the symbol of sleep, dreams but not, here, of death, since the music keeps moving forwards until it’s shot through by a stunning fanfare.

How full-bodied the orchestra sounds here, such depth and verve. Pounding circular figures, which repeat over and over. The march again in a new guise. Fischer and his orchestra get the bright, dizzying whips of sound particularly well, so there’s no sense of stasis. The quiet passage has echoes of something nostalgic, a Ruckblick of some sort, the beautiful waltz theme remembered. Then suddenly trumpets and timpani explode, horns and trombones call ever upwards. A new theme appears tentaively, submerged into another explosive crescendo, which are created with great crispness and clarity. Then the theme takes over, trumpets and brass “marching” again. This three chord theme always reminds me of Handel’s Hallelujah chorus “King of Kings! Lord of Lords! He shall reign forever and ever”. Whether Mahler was deliberately quoting or not, the concept does fit the mood of the symphony. Fischer’s reading isn’t as violent as some, and the gentler passages that follow the outburst are elegantly shaped. Again the rolling circular “march” returns, whipped ahead by extremely bright trumpets, heralding the final glorious coda, which here sounded specially golden and vivid. Such a purposeful, determined and clear-headed. Mahler has arrived!

As a Mahler conductor, Ivan Fischer is much more idiomatic than Semyon Bychkov, whose Mahler 6th (Prom 56) I admired so much. Fischer engages with Mahler on a much deeper level, bringing out the fundamental strong mindedness in Mahler’s architecture, which underpins the spiritual searching. “Always, trajectory!” as Pierre Boulez used to say. For Fischer, too, trajectory is a key to meaning. There are many ways to conduct Mahler 1, but this one has me transfixed.

Doundou Tchil, Classical Oconoclast (blog)