It is the common fate of highly demanding compositions employing a gigantic ensemble to be scarcely performed. This time, the special occasion was matched by the equally special quality of the performance. Review of the Resurrection Symphony of Gustav Mahler by Kristóf Csengery.
It is no accident that Iván Fischer, leading the Budapest Festival Orchestra, was artistic director of the Mahler Festival, a joint undertaking with Müpa Budapest. And it is no accident that the Festival, held regularly every autumn from 2005 until 2012, was met by great and resounding success, giving a considerable impetus to the process of making Mahler’s music accepted in Hungary. This is because Fischer is currently one of the greatest interpreters of Mahler, and the conductor’s commitment to the composer is underlined by a maximal affinity for his music as well as a thorough knowledge and deep understanding of it. Even within Mahler’s œuvre, so important for Fischer, the cult piece, Symphony No. 2, occupies a special position as the recording of its performance at the Palace of Arts by the conductor and his orchestra in September 2005 (release: 2006, Channel Classics) received a Gramophone Award in 2007. Thirteen years passed in the history of the orchestra without the “Resurrection” Symphony; so it is no wonder that the new performance of the five-movement piece – the last of which sets Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode and the composer’s own words to music – drew international attention. Of the three concerts on three consecutive days, the second was broadcast live by Mezzo Television, probably making the interpretation of the Festival Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer accessible to an incomparably larger audience.
This review surveys the afternoon concert of the following, the third and last day, not the one seen and heard by many by virtue of the television broadcast. I witnessed a monumental, upsetting and cathartic rendering: Iván Fischer’s conducting, I felt, demonstrated every shade of the numerous ideas and emotions inherent in the symphony. The dark mass of the opening movement’s funeral music weighed heavily upon the listener with all its relentless accents, tight rhythms and resolute vigour – not to speak of its epic length, every moment of which was filled with intensity, magnetism, and a perfectionist richness of detail. After this vision of death, in one of the inner movements, the Ländler, portraying our carnal, earthly world, I noticed accents evoking a cheerful rural atmosphere, dance rhythms reflecting the joy of life, and glissandos and pizzicatos representing happiness and desire. Much as Fischer’s conducting exploited the folkloristic optimism of the Ländler, he also strongly emphasized the sour, silvery sarcasm of the Scherzo when using material from Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, a song from the earlier Des Knaben Wunderhorn cycle. Sharp segmentation and distinct contrasts characterized the ensemble’s playing.
The Festival Orchestra is able to excel under the baton of several great musicians, from Marek Janowski to Gábor Takács-Nagy, yet it is always at its best when led by Fischer. The BFO was a marvellous partner to the conductor throughout the entire symphony. No less inspiring was the contribution of the two female voices. Elisabeth Kulman, the contralto soloist of the fourth movement, Urlicht, as well as soprano Christiane Karg, who joined her for the Finale, produced an impeccable vocal achievement, controlling pitch, tones and dynamics perfectly and in an effortless manner. More important, they were able to fully transfigure, to identify with the spirit of the composition, taking their audience with them. In Urlicht, the singing of Elisabeth Kulman rendered the complex feelings of vulnerability, anxiety, pain, desire and hope of somebody who had once abandoned God and now yearns for a reunion (Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott), with a moving authenticity. In the vocal parts of the Finale, Christiane Karg followed her partner with amazing enthusiasm, identifying with the transcendental qualities emanating from the entire movement.
On the recording thirteen years ago, Fischer worked with the Hungarian Radio Choir. Their collaboration was quite memorable. However, the purity, plasticity, and the transparency of sound now provided by the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno – chorusmaster: Petr Fiala – can only be labelled as ideal. Thanks to the choir, the Resurrection Ode was to be heard with exceptional authenticity and zeal.
Regarding Iván Fischer’s conducting, one should also mention the dramatic energy of the huge crescendos, the graphic execution of the contrapuntal structures, the display of the symphony’s archaisms, the wonderful three-dimensional milieu of the mystic-enigmatic lontano effects, the awareness and transmission of the work’s “musical world theatre” genre and visionary character – and, last but not least, the elevated and transfigured spirituality with which the conductor performed the message of every single bar of the composition, fully identifying with the piece.