Germany Mahler Festival : Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer (conductor). Gewandhaus Grosser Saal, 23.5.2023. (GT)
Mahler – Symphony No.9 in D major
Delayed for two years by the worldwide pandemic, the 2023 Mahler Festival was eagerly awaited worldwide. The first Mahler Festival in Leipzig took place to mark the centenary of his death in 2011, and this event was the second to take place after the cancellation in 2021. Few events are so well prepared as the festivals held every two years in Leipzig celebrating the music of great composers connected with the Gewandhaus: Bach, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich and Mahler.
The world’s great orchestras performed in the Grosser Saal of the Gewandhaus between 18 and 29 May, with supplementary night concerts taking place in diverse venues across the city; one at the Peterskirche programmed improvisations of Mahler’s music on the piano, while at the Nicholas Kirche, there were mixed electronic and organ arrangements. There were daytime talks by distinguished musicologists Professor Jeremy Barham and Professor Birgit Lodes at the Mendelssohn House and the Alte Handelsbörse respectively.
A highlight for concertgoers were the pre-concert talks given in German by Ann-Katrin Zimmermann and in English by Stephen Johnson at the Gewandhaus. Moreover, Johnson’s thoughts on Mahler’s symphonies adorned the programme booklets in some of the most insightful writings on the composer I have read. The texts were enhanced by illustrations by Max Klinger from the period in which Mahler wrote his symphonies, complementing the thoughts and ideas about Mahler’s music.
Mahler’s final completed symphony is the work which most portrays his feelings about love and death. Rather than a prophecy of his own death, Mahler’s Ninth portrays the grief at the death of his four-year-old daughter Maria ‘Putzi’ from scarlet fever and diphtheria. Despite the diagnosis of his own heart condition, Mahler was excited about his prospects of working in New York which offered a release from the hostility he had endured in Vienna. Rather than being reconciled with his own death, the Tenth Symphony reveals optimism and onward hopes. Nevertheless, many have claimed that the Ninth foreshadowed the cataclysmic events of the twentieth century. Completed in the summer of 1910, the Ninth was premiered by his student Bruno Walter on 26 June 1912 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Andante comodo opened quietly on the harp of harpist Rosanna Rolton and by muted horns, joined by the trombones, and the tuba of József Bazsinka, hinting at a rhythmic heartbeat as the funeral march commenced with prophetic strikes from the timpani. The fluttering harmonies of the woodwind playing, assisted by glorious string playing, were distinguished by solos from Gabrielle Pivon on the flute and a poignant solo from the violin of Daniel Bard. As we reached the culmination, we heard vivid birdcalls from the wind as if portraying, as Alban Berg described it ‘a vision of the hereafter’.
In the Scherzo, the richly verdant strings portrayed charmingly rustic Ländler mingled with Viennese waltzes, in sequences combining great beauty with sarcasm and parody. The Hungarian musicians revealed great virtuosity and often astonished one with their edge-of-the-seat playing. A remarkable wild and bucolic sequence closed on the piccolo flute of Bernadette Nagy. It was striking how Iván Fischer leads his musicians; rather than energetically gesturing to ensure the orchestra adhered to his interpretation – like a watchful professor – he silently makes only critical movements with his hands while continuously consulting the huge score before him. Of course, everything has been prepared, with only the minimum directions required during the performance. In the third movement, Rondo-Burleske, the dissonance on the trumpet created contrasting themes and emotions, sometimes parody and sarcasm, nevertheless leading us to a devastating climax.
In the fourth movement, Finale. Adagio, the opulently lush strings announced the theme of the hymn tune ‘Lebewohl’ (‘Abide with me’) and the feeling of great personal loss became all-pervading. We were hearing awe-inspiring playing from every section of the orchestra, conspicuously from the contrabassoon, and piccolo. The violins announced a quotation from the composer’s Kindertotenlieder, ‘We’ll join [the children] soon on the heights in the sunshine! The day is lovely on the heights!’ At once, the hymn ’Abide with me’ was reprised, and ever so quietly the music descended to an ethereal emptiness, distinguished by dazzling string solos before the music died away into nothingness.
This was the finest performance of this great symphony that I have heard and will surely remain in the memory of many who attended this magnificent concert. At the close, the audience rose to greet the musicians after this extraordinary concert. Thankfully, the performance was recorded and is available on arte.tv until 23 June and will be released on DVD/Blu-ray in the future by Accentus.
In all at the 2023 Mahler Festival, 35,000 people attended the 17 orchestral concerts, 12 chamber concerts, 14 lectures, 4 night concerts, 2 film screenings and 2 theatre performances. 45,000 listeners heard the live audio streams worldwide, and 320,000 watched the live broadcasts on ARTE Concert.