Lean, Low-Key ‘Resurrection’ with Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra

HungaryHungary Mahler: Christiane Karg (soprano), Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano), Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer (conductor). Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, Müpa Budapest., 13.5.2018. (SS)

Iván Fischer © Marco Borggreve

Mahler – Symphony No.2, ‘Resurrection’

It took Mahler a number of years before he expanded his Totenfeier symphonic poem, which he completed over nine months in 1888, into what we know today as the Second Symphony. In the intervening period, he was busy with his duties as director of the Budapest Opera, a post he held from 1888 to 1891. Budapest, to be fair, is significant for reasons other than Mahler’s creative slowdown. His position at the opera was a step up in his conducting career and there he met Brahms for the first time. In 1889, he also conducted the premiere of his First Symphony with the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra.

It would be a different story in Vienna, but the top orchestra in Budapest today can claim no connection with these events or indeed with any other part of Mahler’s biography. This is because the Budapest Festival Orchestra was only founded in 1983. Moreover, were some historical link to exist with the Second Symphony, which the BFO performed at the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall on Sunday, its co-founder Iván Fischer would probably profess indifference. After 35 years as music director, Fischer maintains that his ensemble of freelancers is a young upstart that does things very differently to orchestras with more illustrious pasts, which he likes to compare to dinosaurs living on borrowed time.

The orchestra’s much-vaunted innovations were sympathetically documented in a 2014 New Yorker profile of Fischer, in which Alex Ross wrote of the BFO’s ‘disruptive approach to the business of putting on concerts’. Some of the alleged disruptions, such as the mingling of orchestra and audience members through the use of beanbags, sound like a quaint throwback to the 1970s – an echo of Boulez’s rug concerts, which themselves owed more than a little to Woodstock.

But this is harmless compared to the sour note of Fischer’s anti-union rhetoric, directed at American orchestras. The neoliberal ‘flexibility’ of an orchestra composed of freelancers – which Fischer touts as superior to providing musicians with a modicum of job security – is represented as forward-looking and progressive. At best, this sounds like a deeply eccentric notion, particularly to millennials who face the prospect of years stuck in the gig economy or classified as self-employed by employers unwilling to pay worker benefits. To read that a ‘core group has been with the orchestra for years’ gives pause about the BFO’s presumably larger number of non-core members, whose employment in what Ross fleetingly concedes is ‘hardly a grassroots democracy’ may be rather more precarious.

Over time, the BFO will likely be seen as disruptive only insofar as the young Stolzing was disruptive to the Nuremberg Mastersingers (and the Mastersingers disruptive to Stolzing). Fischer’s ‘unconventional’ efforts to reach out to a younger audience look scarcely different nowadays to new formats introduced by the traditional orchestras he rails against. Equally, it was the avowed intent of the BFO since its inception to become a major international orchestra, and while we can debate whether it has joined the Mastersingers’ guild entirely on its own terms, joined the Mastersingers’ guild it has indeed. Fischer’s BFO has been increasingly recognized over the last decade as one of the world’s top orchestras, and the playing in this Mahler symphony, which Fischer will take on a European tour for the rest of the month, stood as a testament to the dizzying standard of excellence it now sets.

This excellence is alloyed to the BFO’s lean sound, which does genuinely set it apart from other central European orchestras. It is often noted that Fischer was mentored by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, but the way he has shaped the BFO’s sound seems more informed by his other Viennese mentor, Hans Swarowsky, who favored a lighter string sound but not without a measure of warmth and the occasional moment of sweetness (the BFO strings weren’t stingy in the Andante with their winsome, echt Viennese portamenti). At times, Fischer’s musicians sound uncannily like a scaled-up version of the Orchestra Mozart when it was conducted by Claudio Abbado, another student of Swarowsky.

I have heard the BFO perform big Tchaikovsky and Bruckner symphonies with this sound and the results were intriguingly unfiltered, as well as bracing. Their performance of the ‘Resurrection’ was also played leanly, but Fischer’s undemonstrative conducting made it less invigorating than his Tchaikovsky and Bruckner. It sounded like his aim in taking a step back was to give the performance the aura of chamber music – a quirky (a word that crops up again and again in media coverage of Fischer) and almost brazen way of doing Mahler’s Second Symphony, for sure, but with the abundance of Mahler in the concert hall it’s good to see conductors pushing interpretive boundaries.

And the conducting, in fairness, did produce a few interesting results. The first movement had a sprightly vehemence and grandiosity never intruded, even in the final movement. Gone too was any heightened sense of Mahlerian neurosis – in fact, Fischer made a strong case for dispensing with this more often. I liked the precision and control which ran forcefully through the first three movements, not just making the BFO sound like a very well-oiled chamber ensemble but giving every little bit of phrasing its due (and have I ever heard the pizzicato at the end of the Andante sound as good as this? I don’t think so).

It has been a while since I last heard Elisabeth Kulman and Christiane Karg, two singers who were paired superbly in this performance. Kulman imparts a poignant emotional charge to her texts and this quality was affectingly present in her ‘O Röschen rot’. In their ‘O glaube’, Karg and Kulman entered with a spellbinding delicacy, and amid Fischer’s low-key approach, the richness of their tone added a note of luxury. The Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno was more on board with Fischer and didn’t do much roof-raising in the final movement, but their initial ‘Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n’ made a strikingly crepuscular impression.

If Iván Fischer had found a way to instill more drama or a stronger sense of line into his understated ‘Resurrection’, it would have been a stroke of genius. But despite the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s committed playing, the performance remained a counterintuitive curiosity piece.

Sebastian Smallshaw

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