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Iván Fischer: Master of Pianissimo

Our thanks to guest critic Robert R. Reilly for contributing this review of the NSO's Mahler. You can read his latest column on New American Music at CRISIS / Inside
Charles' review of tonight's performance will follow up on this as part of our in-depth Mahler coverage.

If you arrived at the Kennedy Center for Thursday evening’s performance of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony expecting a sonic spectacle or an orchestral wallow, you were in the wrong place. That is not what the National Symphony Orchestra and the Master Chorale of Washington, with soloists, under conductor Iván Fischer delivered. It was, rather, the Resurrection without the Apocalypse. I cannot imagine a performance further removed from Leonard Bernstein’s high-wire neurotic portrayals of Mahler than this one. I admit that this was my first exposure to Fischer’s conducting. A friend who had listened to, and liked, Fischer’s recent recording of the Second, used the term “understatement” to describe his approach. Yes, that is it. If you came for the thrills, you could have found the first four movements a bit enervating – until Fischer pulled out all the stops at the finale.

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Mahler, Symphony No.2, Fischer / Budapest Festival Orchestra / Milne

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Bach, Mahler, Symphony No.6, Fischer / Budapest Festival Orchestra
If you are open to his approach, however, there were many rewards. It was evident from the beginning of the first movement that Fischer was not attuned to the hyper-dramatic, but was aiming at refinement of expression, transparency and inner balance. Nothing was stretched; nothing was pulled. By keeping things in their right relationship to each other, Fischer did not have to exaggerate. There was nothing wild or willful. Fischer trusted the music.

With the NSO, he achieved an orchestral pianissimo resembling vapor rising from the ground that touched the listener like mist. It was breathtaking in its delicacy. I have never heard finer from the NSO. If Mahler had had a pin drop as part of his orchestration, you could have heard it in this performance. The visual spectacle of the huge orchestral and choral forces on stage belied by the sonorities that reached me in row EE. It was more like listening to an extraordinarily fine chamber orchestra.

However, beauty can have a price – in a sense of lessened drama from a lack of underlying tension that threatens to burst forth at any moment (Bernstein’s trademark). The first movement seemed more of a pastoral excursion than a Totenfeier, or funeral rite. Things seemed more magical than terrifying. Here was an interpretation that made Mahler’s request for a 5-minute pause before the start of the Andante movement, with its charming minuet, unnecessary. It did not seem that death was so bad to begin with. In this interpretation, the transition was not, as Mahler feared, at all jarring.

One may consider this an interpretive mistake, but Fischer held to it consistently and it revealed much about the inner workings of the music and many often overlooked beauties. Mahler said that a symphony contains a whole world, and he certainly brought one forth in this work. For the most part, Fisher showed it to us from the outside, as one might better observe its finely jeweled movements. The level of emotional involvement comported with this perspective, until a change occurred in the latter part of the last movement.

With the entry of the chorus, I felt myself for the first time inside the music. It was another masterpiece of pianissimo. How many times have I ever heard something of such hushed beauty? It was worth the entire evening. The Master Chorale was magnificent. Then, with the radiant entry of soprano Juliane Banse, the tears began to well. From there, I was pretty much lost in the spiritual moment that Mahler intended to express in this work – so much so that I turned to my son when it was over and asked, “Do you think that is what it will be like?”

If it is, I will know that the NSO and Fischer brought me there first.


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