The Budapest Festival Orchestra performed Mahler’s Third Symphony in Müpa on 10, 11 & 12 March. Curiosity, and my attachment to the work, drove me to listen to all three concerts. (Playliszt blog/Pál Horváth)
Mahler’s Third is a great challenge for performers. The composer’s symphonies are widely known for their monumentality but, if it can be said, the Third is exceptional even among the greats. Firstly because of its length; my conjuncture was proven right when I browsed the 2010 Mahler discography edited by Péter Fülöp, which includes the duration of the recordings, to find that this is the composer’s longest work, at least according to the performing traditions of the second half of the 20th century. Its performance time varies between 90 and 100 minutes, often going beyond the 100-minute mark, and takes less than one and a half hours only in exceptional cases. (Trivia: only two recordings of the Eighth Symphony, which is known as the “Symphony of a Thousand” and requires an enormous set-up, slightly exceed 90 minutes of performance time.)
It is also an exceptional piece because it has a lot to say. Mahler’s letters, and accounts from his friends, speak of eight drafts for the programme which included titles for the movements, none of which were included in the orchestral score of the Third Symphony which was published in 1899. Connected or unconnected to the programme, the symphony’s six movements present us with six distinct, but related, worlds. It’s not just the movements that are thematically related; one can find excerpts from Mahler’s previous two symphonies and his next one. It is almost impossible to completely understand and decipher its enormous and intricate texture, but the Festival Orchestra unravelled and showed us much of it. They treated the music expressively and boldly, and went from the naturalistic, occasionally raw sound of the first movement to the ethereal heights of the last.
All three concerts were great experiences, and the story also has a moral because, naturally, none of the concerts were the same. The common themes were the quality of sound we’ve become so used to and almost expect from the Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer’s concept for the piece and the realisation of that concept. I stress the latter because his baton was clearly driven by the same goal all three times, namely, the intention to convey the story behind the notes – this is just one of the reasons why it’s so easy to adore the Festival Orchestra; they don’t just make music, they also want to send us a message.
As for the differences, I have something to say about all three concerts. The first was overwhelmingly bold and vigorously intensive, fitting for a premiere.
The second evening was a little more weary, as became apparent after the fourth movement. From that point on, both the orchestra’s performance and Fischer’s conducting became less inspired. I regretted that the most during the last movement, because the orchestra didn’t completely succeed in recreating the calm and thoroughly moving atmosphere they had done the first time around.
They learned their lessons for the third concert, which was something of a synthesis of the previous two. Even though the orchestra played a lot more consciously than during the first performance, the miracle did happen and still sent shivers down the spine. During the well-deserved, resounding applause, I think I saw deep emotions on the faces of the musicians – I believe this symphony must be a major milestone in the life of the orchestra.
I would do well at this point to mention the vocal forces; Gerhild Romberger’s full voice and exceptionally expressive interpretation of the text contributed to the success of the symphony, while the Bavarian Radio Choir and the Cantemus Children’s Choir of Nyíregyháza preformed their rewarding jobs amazingly.
I was happy to read on the BFO’s Facebook page that they have already started the recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony, which they are going to keep working on after a tour of several countries. The readiness of the orchestra and Iván Fischer’s concept promise a significant recording that will be worth listening to for many decades.