Budapest Festival Orchestra
Press reviews Interviews March 08, 2013

When conducting Mahler, I feel like Gustav is whispering over my shoulder

Innovation in the world of classical music is rarely observed these days in the domain of traditional symphony orchestras, which are predominantly concerned with keeping their gargantuan size afloat (and the divine status of their conductor alive) in a concert circuit which is increasingly geared towards small, cheap, and flexible. A delightful exception is the Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer, who created his own top orchestra from scratch in 1983, and staffed it with resourceful individuals instead of passive employees. With this Budapest Festival Orchestra, Fischer profiled himself as one of the major Mahler conductors of his generation (and probably the best ever). The fact that Fischer is not going to play Mahler in his upcoming concert in Brussels (but Mozart and Liszt) should not keep you from admiring one of the most sensational experiments in the recent history of music.

Iván Fischer was born in Budapest in 1951 in a fanatically musical Jewish family. His father was a violinist, a conductor, and a theatre composer, and his older brother Ádám is one of the most acclaimed opera conductors of our days (last December, Ádám Fischer lead the Brussels Monnaie Orchestra in an exquisitely refined, exciting Fledermaus). When asked about the uniqueness of his ultra-musical milieu, Fischer modestly responds that families with two top conductors are not very exceptional: “the Estonian Järvi-dynasty has three: father Neeme, and his sons Paavo and Kristjan.”

Iván himself had no desire to conduct at first: “Ádám wanted to be a conductor, but my interests were rather more diverse: I composed, and I was also into early music. In my father’s view, the fact that I was a cello player precluded any chance of becoming a conductor: in his generation, all orchestra leaders had started out as repetiteur in opera houses, and that was a job for pianists – Ádám is a pianist –, not for cello players.”

At the Vienna Conservatory, however, Iván Fischer did train as a conductor, and he studied with two monuments of 20th century music. He took conducting classes with the legendary Hans Swarowsky, who had studied with Schönberg and Webern himself, and who had been introduced in the art of conducting by Richard Strauss (Swarowsky’s classes produced acclaimed conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta, and Giuseppe Sinopoli). But in addition to Swarowsky, there was the young Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who had embarked on the first experiments with historically informed music making at the beginning of the 1970’s. According to Iván Fischer, a larger contrast than between these two mentors is inconceivable: “Swarowsky belonged to a generation and taste which was extremely puritanical and anti-Romantic. For Swarowsky, the only thing which mattered was structure, and as a conductor you were supposed to bring out the structure in a way there would no risk of sentimentality. Tonal beauty was of no interest whatsoever to him. Swarowsky has taught as many useful things – such as the meticulous analysis of a score –, but there was also a great coldness. I can still hear traces of Swarowsky in the playing of Claudio Abbado and Zubin Mehta, although none of us has fully adopted his dry puritanism. Except maybe Pierre Boulez. Now, for Nikolaus Harnoncourt, on the other hand, it was vital to read between the notes to grasp the message which is communicated in a composition. For Harnoncourt, a piece of music is no more than the starting point for musical communication.”

Fischer’s career skyrocketed in 1976 when he won the Rupert Foundation Conducting Competition in London. The most tangible consequence of that success was a deluge of invitations, and five years of commuting between smaller and bigger orchestras. In spite of the fact that among these orchestras were such reputed ensembles as the London Symphony Orchestra, Fischer started dreaming of his own orchestra before long: “Harnoncourt had taught me to regard music as a medium for creative interpretation, and my Hungarian background has inspired great sensitivity in me for the colour and detail of chamber music. I’ve often missed these aspects in the orchestras I worked with: they were able to achieve a machine-like perfection, but they played without warmth and conviction. I recurrently dreamed in this period of an orchestra made up of creative soloists who would function like the members of a string quartet.”

One of the most sensational events in the recent history of music is the fact that Fischer subsequently went on to realize this dream: in collaboration with the Hungarian pianist Zoltán Kocsis “he called up a number of musicians with the request to play symphonic music a few times per year.” Crucially, the communist regime had no trouble with Fischer’s plan: “Hungary was one of the more tolerant among communist countries, and in the 80’s, the regime was decidedly less rigid: there was a lot of room for initiative. I haven’t felt any constraints, except on the part of the state-subsidized and controlled orchestras: they resented the fact that we had expressed the wish to establish a better orchestra. They lodged a complaint with the authorities and next there ensued an upsurge of chaos and excitement (with meetings, debates, …) which was picked up by the media. Since the music loving public was thrilled by the prospect of a new orchestra, the authorities eventually gave in. The first nine years we operated as a freelance ensemble, but I wanted stability, I wanted to employ orchestra members as salaried musicians. After the collapse of communism, a new generation of politicians provided a more stable funding to enable a permanent business structure of the orchestra. But the proportion of subsidies from the different authorities is still no more than 40 % [Belgian orchestras are typically subsidized up to 80 % – SG]: compared to other ensembles, we’re underfunded, and we pay proportionally smaller salaries, as a result of which we often lose talent.”

With his Budapest Festival Orchestra – so called because originally it was assembled for festival purposes, but also because any concert should be a festive occasion in the mind of the orchestra’s founder – Fischer could prevail over the frustrations incurred with other orchestras. One thing he corrected from the very beginning is the traditional relation between conductor and musicians: “I wanted an orchestra in which musicians would retain the individuality and creativity they had fostered during their training. There is a wide gap between the conservatory – which teaches young musicians to develop their own vision and their own style –, and the orchestra, in which personal input is not expected, let alone demanded. In Budapest, however, we have many programmes which promote personal initiative, because individual creativity generates joy, and musicians who enjoy themselves are happier, more eager, and more uninhibited. We have a number of small incentives to boost individuality. To begin with, we try to reduce conventional orchestra work and play as often as possible in smaller line-ups. There are also various types of project conductorships: if you are a violinist, I give you the opportunity to compile your own programme, and to choose your partners in the orchestra. In addition we regularly have internal competitions: musicians who have the desire to play a solo concerto with the orchestra can sign up for them. We typically have 40 enrolments per year, and it is our audience who selects the best soloists. We have afternoon concerts for children – the so-called Cocoa concerts – for which orchestra musicians compile the programme. Mind you: on a voluntary basis. Musicians who do not wish to outshine their colleagues are not forced to do so, of course.”

Fischer’s unorthodox approach yielded immediate results, because “even in its first years as a freelance ensemble, the orchestra was immensely successful: our concerts in Budapest were extremely well-attended, and (inter)national invitations and record deals followed instantly.” And that was not the end of it. In December 2008, only 25 years after its foundation, the Budapest Festival Orchestra was ranked 9th in the hierarchy of world orchestras by the leading music magazine Gramophone (the first three ranks being reserved for the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, the Berliner Philharmoniker, and the Wiener Philharmoniker). In spite of the absurdity of this type of chart – for how on earth should one determine (the weight of) the ranking criteria? – a stunning tour de force for the only orchestra in the top ten which was less than a hundred years old.

Something which never ceases to amaze in the light of the success of an orchestra he has been able to create in his own image, is the observation that Fischer continues to conduct elsewhere, and not only as a guest conductor. Fischer led the Opera de Lyon for a number of years, and since 2011 he is the principal conductor of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, orchestras which are conspicuously inferior to his own: “I understand your surprise, and I often wonder myself why I continue to do this. It probably comes down to the fact that a person cannot exist entirely in a dream world: one sometimes needs normality. If I should play exclusively with Budapest, moreover, I would isolate myself: I learn a great deal from my engagements elsewhere, and I typically accept invitations from ensembles with a comparably experimental track record. The Lyon opera orchestra, for instance, was founded in 1983 by John Eliot Gardiner [a major British pioneer of historically informed music making – SG], and there used to be a cast of resident singers instead of the usual star roulette. A dream situation, which was killed, alas, by the new intendant. And the Berlin Konzerthaus orchestra is a former East-German orchestra with the unrestrained ambition to surpass itself, to establish a new collectivity in old structures. Still, coming home to Budapest is always a relief: it’s like switching to a Stradivarius when you’re accustomed to playing on a normal violin.”

A composer who has contributed significantly to the reputation of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and its founder is Gustav Mahler, whose late-romantic symphonic collages continue to be regarded as pathetic, incongruent and pubescent, in spite of a growing popularity. To Fischer we owe the discovery of a middle way between the most extreme emotional exhibitionism and the most sterile objectivity in the performance of Mahler: “You truly have these extremes: Bernstein was too sentimental, Boulez too cold. I find the honest performance of Mahler a sensitive issue. Walter knew Mahler personally, and he frequently attended his concerts. As far as Mahler is concerned, Walter is “authentic” avant-la-lettre, with a privileged access to the aesthetic universe of the maestro. And yet I don’t like his performances. I’ve often wondered why that is, and the only thing I can come up with is too much respect: Walter probably regarded it as his duty to imitate Mahler, as a result of which he could not, or did not want to pursue his own view. Otto Klemperer’s Mahler recordings [Klemperer was another friend and protégé of Mahler, and one of the most reputed Mahler conductors ever – SG] are the diametrical opposite of Walter’s, but that is probably because Klemperer was a much more assertive man who confidently pursued his own course.”

The main factor which makes any of Fischer’s Mahler concerts a true revelation, is the fact that he does not wish to make Mahler more beautiful or coherent than he is. In his (already legendary) Bruges concert of last fall, Fischer demonstrated that it doesn’t pay to invest too rigidly in an overarching top-down approach by forcing coherence in Mahler’s chaos from above. According to Fischer, however, conducting Mahler is not a matter of choice: “To me, Mahler is self-evident: I sense what is logical in Mahler, and what is logical I cannot perform but in accordance with this logic. Mahler was a brilliant conductor himself, and he left us a wealth of small messages in his personal scores: there is so much information on the how and why of specific accents, crescendos… When I conduct Mahler, I feel as if Gustav himself is whispering over my shoulder how to do this and that. This intimate bond I experience between Mahler and myself is undoubtedly a consequence of the fact that we have a common background: we both descend from Central-European Jewish families who have left their religion behind in order to focus on culture with a similar dedication.”

In addition to his refusal to regard Mahler as an inaccessible and opaque composer, Fischer also refuses to contribute to the mystification of Mahler as a doomed melancholic, and he passionately cautions against exaggerated “biographism”: “Mahler was a rarely gifted and cultivated man, who had to struggle day in day out to stay afloat in the unbearably chaotic world of opera. This tension engendered a difficult and psychotic personality. But it is a bridge too far to connect every melancholic note in Mahler’s music to private adversity. The reverse is true: Mahler’s most harmonic symphony – the Fourth – originated in a period of enormous tension, while the Sixth – which was dubbed the “Tragic” almost from the onset – was written in the most happy period of Mahler’s life, following his wedding with Alma. As a composer, you build on ideas and concepts which have been fermenting in your head for a long time: not every downer automatically or immediately yields depressive music.”

In contrast to many conductors of “traditional” symphony orchestras, Fischer has recurrently manifested sympathy for historically informed music making, an attraction which dates back to his days at the Vienna Conservatory, when he studied with, and later assisted Nikolaus Harnoncourt. More recently (in 2006), Fischer was appointed “Principal Artist” of the London-based Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. In spite of this sympathy for period instruments, and the progressing scope of the authentic movement – which has penetrated well into the 20th century –, Fischer doesn’t feel like historically informed experiments with Mahler: “Mahler writes highly emotional music that should be played from the heart. As soon as musicians have become so proficient on their late 19th century instruments that they can do that, the idea becomes attractive: I’m not interested in sound experiments with pioneers who insufficiently master their instruments. Intellectual archaeology holds no fascination for me, and finding out how Mahler and Debussy sounded in their own era is not a very pressing question for me either. But … sometimes the use of 19th century instruments is functionally justified. Present-day orchestras have a much larger volume than their forerunners and singers in Wagner operas have to sing much louder than their predecessors, as a consequence of which you predominantly hear the vowels (which doesn’t improve intelligibility). With period instruments, you would hear the voices and understand the text, which is pivotal, since Wagner is all about understanding the text.”

The next occasion to admire Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra is his concert in Brussels on March 6, though he is not going to play Mahler or Wagner then, but Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony, a work which was neglected for a long time before Thomas Beecham and especially Leonard Bernstein put it back on the menu again. Negative stereotyping is not uncommon in the history of music, but Franz Liszt is one of the few composers who truly collapsed under the label fixed onto him. For the average listener, Liszt lives still is a circus virtuoso with inferior talents as an orchestrator: “Liszt has written great works but also mediocre ones. I would never play the Dante Symphony, but the Faust is an incredibly well-written, brilliant piece with an organic relation between story and music. The original four part version had a large choir at the end – a reference to Beethoven –, but Liszt reduced it to the three movement version we’re taking on tour to Turin, Brussels, Linz, Vaduz, and Ljubljana.”

Although international tours have always been a basic ingredient in the make-up of the Budapest Festival Orchestra (on the day after this interview, Fischer took the orchestra on a short American-Canadian tour with Shostakovich and Rachmaninov), Fischer always returns to his home country Hungary, although he’s saddened by the escalating nationalism and the xeno- and homophobia it coincides with. In contrast to this brother Ádám, who resigned in 2010 as music director of the Hungarian State Opera in protest to the controversial new media laws (which significantly reduced freedom of speech), Iván has no plans to lay down his conductorship of the Budapest Festival Orchestra: “I don’t believe Hungary is lost yet, and I can achieve much more by playing concerts here and abroad which are attended by thousands of people. I don’t want to abandon these people, but if Hungary is totally lost, if it submerges in an irreversible nationalism, I will leave.”

It is unclear what would happen to the orchestra if the latter should ever become the case. Neither is it obvious what would happen when Fischer is no longer capable or willing to lead it. This is a general problem which is much more acute in the domain of early music, where orchestras are the private playgrounds of their founders (what’s going to happen to the Collegium Vocale, La Petite Bande, Anima Eterna, …, when Philippe Herreweghe, Sigiswald Kuijken, Jos van Immerseel are gone?). Fischer recognizes the problem, but is of the opinion that it is not up to him “to decide how to proceed then. I’ve discussed this extensively with Frans Brüggen, and he too worries about the future of the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century when he retires. The Salzburg Camerata Academica played on for some time after the death of Sándor Végh in 1997, but never again with the same success. There is no gold standard, but there is a dilemma of course. And it goes without saying that I hope the Budapest Festival Orchestra will survive me, though if it will, it’ll be with other people, inevitably, and with different ideas.”

Stefan Grondelaers