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Ionarts-at-Large: Fischer Iván's Touch for Mahler

Even amid the Gustav Mahler-overkill of today’s concert scene—no renowned orchestra without a complete Mahler cycle in the last couple of years; every other provincial band taking a crack at his symphonies—a performance of his Third Symphony is still an event.

It’s Mahler’s most expansive symphony, his most expensive (bar the Eighth), and his most bewildering (bar the Seventh). Little wonder it is the least performed of the first four “Wunderhorn Symphonies”. But it is also Mahler’s boldest symphony, Mahler at his clichéd best, and when the finale is brought off just right, it is the symphony with the most ecstatically moving ending: A flight of music that carries the listener through a weightless journey of the imagination.

That’s a high bar to meet for any performance, and few ever get there. Of the five Mahler Thirds I’ve heard live in the last two years (Mariss Jansons/RCO in Amsterdam, Vladimir Jurowski/LPO in London, Jansons/BRSO in Munich, Esa-Pekka Salonen/Dresden Staats-kapelle in Leipzig, and now Fischer Iván with the Munich Philharmonic ), none had that sense of apotheosis one hopes for. Jurowski managed two superb, gripping movements, but tapered off. Jansons/BRSO offered sheer flawlessness, but never achieved lift-off in the finale. Salonen/Dresden didn’t get properly started until the fourth movement, but went far in providing for that final flight of fancy.

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Symphony No.3,
P.Boulez / WPh / A.S.v.Otter
Iván Fischer, with the Munich Philharmonic under his measured baton, may have turned in the most successful performance yet – certainly the finest second movement I have heard. “What the flowers on the meadow tell me” – or more to the point: “Tempo di Menuetto. Very moderate. Anything but hurried!” – was delivered with a pretty, gentle air; at a happily calm yet very lively pace. It exhibited the gentle humor and feeling for rhythm that Fischer often displays, not the least in Mahler. (His recording of the Sixth is the epitome of this ability.) He has an intuitive sense for the subtleties of Mahler’s rhythm like few, if any, others.

His rambunctious, oompah-band infused, beer-fuelled first movement with lively, nearly comical bird voices, and the nasal and glib first violinists’ solos (largely eschewing prettification and therefore – perhaps unwittingly – suitable for Mahler) seemed deliberately episodic. Especially in the sparse percussion sections. Along with self-contained movements two, three, and four, this ended up being an effective way of expectation-management: They didn’t suggest a continuous increase in heat and tension, which meant that the youngsters from the Tölz Boys' Choir and the ladies of the Munich Philharmonic Chorus could ably lead into the sixth movement (“What love tells me” / “Slow. Calm. With feeling.”) without raising the hope – indeed: need – for a climax of climaxes too high. Fischer & Co. didn’t squeeze tears out of that Adagio, but he managed an elongated elation, with much, just gratification in the applause that set in an appropriate few seconds after the last note had rung out in the Philharmonic Hall.

En route to the finale there was the devilish Posthorn episode, performed with such warm beauty that its hiccups were easily overlooked (if not overheard), and of course Anne Sofie von Otter’s still silvery mezzo soprano. Less clear and refined, her Oh Mensch is still a marvel—to slightly more anonymous, but also more natural effect than in the past.