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Fischer's Resurrection

Iván Fischer, conductor
Mahler's second symphony, the Resurrection, is such a powerful work that even an average performance can elicit strong reactions. Iván Fischer's interpretation of the work, at the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra this week, has received some high praise from critics and listeners. The Friday night performance seemed much more deflated to these ears than the reactions to the Thursday opening night had led me to expect. It is hardly unusual, however, for the second night to fall flat, from performer fatigue, both physical and emotional.

As one might expect from Fischer's 2006 recording with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which won a Grammy Award, his ideas for the basic outline of the symphony were admirable. Fischer eschewed some of the routinely added nuances at sectional breaks and added some unexpected ones. Sonorous climaxes overwhelmed, as they should, with plenty of percussive clatter and sparkle from the two harps. Those staggering swells and booms were effective because Fischer prepared them with careful dynamic control, allowing delicate sounds like the exotic tam-tam to shimmer through the softer textures. Many of the score's fine points were handled well, the jabbing accents and boozy glissandi of the second movement, the patiently paced crescendi. Throughout, the murky English horn solos and jovial E-flat clarinet licks were some of the best woodwind contributions. Only in the third movement were tempo choices truly odd. Fischer had the tempo surge forward suddenly at measure 212, where Mahler did, after all, make the indication Vorwärts. That quick tempo was not what disturbed but the exaggerated slow tempo of the opening section, to which the Tempo I sections later never returned.

Although there were some bothersome infelicities in the orchestra, including a few wilting intonation problems in the trumpet and solo violin parts, it was the solo singing that caused the most concern. We have admired mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore in other kinds of repertoire, but her contribution here was a wolfish, hard-edged Urlicht, hardly the earth-motherly warmth you can wrap yourself in, as in recent recordings by Anna Larsson or Michelle DeYoung or Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Because Larmore's sound was so forced at the same time as it was exposed, with soft solo instruments often wrapped around it, the intonation was occasionally dolorous, part of an overall bad night.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, An Uplifting 'Resurrection' (Washington Post, April 4)

Robert R. Reilly, Iván Fischer: Master of Pianissimo (Ionarts, April 4)
The contrast with the performance of soprano Juliane Banse was striking. Banse also sang the part for David Zinman's recording in Zurich, and indeed we have admired her voice in more than one recording. Her luxuriant tone emerged from the chorus, seated above, like a ray of light, growing in heft from a point nestled in the harmony and then soaring over it, the soul liberated from its bonds. Singing from memory (unlike Larmore, who used a score) furthered the impresson of Banse's winged freedom.

The 100-some voices of the Master Chorale of Washington were generally good, especially at full volume, which any large chorus worth its salt can muster, but less so in the compressed pianissimo sections. When I sang the work with a collegiate chorus years ago, the conductor humorously communicated just how soft the choral entrance ("Aufersteh'n") should be. Lifting his hands to bring us in at that crucial point in the first orchestral rehearsal, he cut us off as we were just taking a breath to sing. "No, no, no," he said, "it's too loud." If subtleties were occasionally lacking in the NSO's performance, the violence of the tombs being opened at the sound of the last trumpet was shattering, and those thundering sounds guaranteed a standing ovation.

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