One of the finest current Gustav Mahler-combos—Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra—assembled before a packed Grosser Saal of the Wiener Konzerhaus December 4th. In tow their latest Mahler-project, the Ninth Symphony.
In the first movement, the orchestra displayed the qualities that make them so enjoyable to hear: playing alive with individuality, fully in control of the material (without Fischer micro-managing them into submission), organically captivating, not ducking any climaxes yet calm when called for and rarely tempted to milk the music.
This most—arguably sole—serene among Mahler’s Symphonies is least fit to overconducting and becoming flashy. This suits Fischer’s way with Mahler, which has been one of eschewing hysterics, erring rather on the side of gentility than anxiety, melodiousness rather than ferociousness. His Mahler is cool-headed even in hectic passages, but very much sanguine and imbued with an amiable bounce, compelling if subtle rhythm, and a good snap. (This as opposed to the rather nonchalant blandness to which David Zinman’s or Maris Jansons’ hands-off-Mahler occasionally succumbs.)
With two such dominant outer movements as the Ninth, the inner ones are prone to be forgotten as soon as the last notes of the mighty finale have stopped ringing through the concert hall. Bit of a shame, really, because the jaunty, hearty Ländlerish second movement (nor the boisterous Rondo-Burleske third movement) are hardly filler material. Amid excellent horn trills and the all-round brassy fun, lively woodwind squeaks and a humorous air (without neglecting the side-by-side lullaby moments), this was gay stuff, spreading early seasonal jolliness.
The third movement, restless and directionless, is not an obvious fit in the work but it is—or should be—memorable for foreshadowing much of what would come in the Adagio of the Tenth Symphony, including hints of the chord clusters that bring the Tenth so naturally close to what Schoenberg would design a few years later. If Mahler’s Ninth were lacking the final movement like Bruckner’s Ninth, every expert would claim that it’s ‘really quite finished that way’ and that nothing could be imagined to follow this.
Fortunately we do have the Finale, and know it wasn't finished, though in a way it’s true that no one would have imagined this finale from the preceding three movements. It shapes the character of the Ninth. It lingers in the memory in a way that sets the whole work apart from the Mahler canon. For the first time Mahler puts aside his question marks from which his other compositions are woven. Instead, he puts gentle exclamation marks into his compository power loom and ends up sounding, for the first and only time, like Bruckner. (Bruckner, incidentally, sounds nowhere like Mahler, except in his Ninth Symphony.) While there is plenty play with tension and sweet and sour dissonance, the finale overall is one long breath, relaxed and calm and difficult to hold together. Mahler, it suggests, has finally been able to let go a little, to loosen his clutch, to forgo the frenzied ecstasy that the apotheosis of the Third still needs to evoke.
That’s not at all suggesting goodbyes—Mahler was not at all ready or intending to go anywhere except New York and back a few more times. It is not his farewell to the world. But it is a moment of peace the kind which we all strive and which Mahler never quite found. All the more reason to enjoy—even wallow—in these (in this case) 25 minutes of glorious life-affirmation, something that the Fischer/Budapest combination made particularly easy. Their pauses—these difficult lacunae—were wonderful, pregnant but not exaggerated; the pianissimos terrific. They never dropped the ball and avoided the once-every-moment brass flubs that had harmlessly dotted the previous movements.