wed 22/05/2024

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Fischer online review - Mahler movements for the fish | reviews, news & interviews

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Fischer online review - Mahler movements for the fish

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Fischer online review - Mahler movements for the fish

What joy to see a big orchestra in action, even if this isn't all of the Seventh Symphony

Mahlerian fun for Budapest fish, bears and humans

In verses from the folk anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn) set by Mahler as a song, later adapted for the scherzo of his Second Symphony, St Anthony of Padua sermonizes on repentance to the fish, who all listen politely and then carry on behaving as they did before.

It’s a parable destined to apply to the human world after lockdown, but not to the wonderful Iván Fischer, who turned 70 in January, telling an aquarium what to make of four movements of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony before and between conducting his Budapest Festival Orchestra. The results will surely charge up all human watchers and listeners online, and give us faith that large-scale symphonic performances will be ours to attend live again soon.

Even to watch on a screen, this is a hugely invigorating experience, now that we’re coming to the end of our tether with the medium-sized orchestra’s repertoire so often repeated online. With, for instance, eight double-basses, four flutes and a piccolo, two harps and cowbells, this is major late-romantic territory (the cameras settle on the cowbells, but can't get in to the melee to feature the guitar and mandolin of the fourth movement). The slot, live, would be a midnight one especially for young people, so there’s no first movement; but of all Mahler symphonies, the Seventh seems most suite-like, an evocation of night and dawn pictures followed by a daylight blaze (Mahler composed Nachtmusik I and II a year after the rest). And better a fully-scored four-fifths than the low-calorie version conducted by Thomas Søndergård for the Edinburgh Festival's "My Light Shines On" series last year. You can't rework any of Mahler's most careful instrumental calibrations without loss.

There's a weird charm to the replacement context: the very large orchestra crammed into a rehearsal studio, in casual wear, some wearing masks, some not, all tested before the performance, gathered around Fischer and a fish tank, cuddly toys sitting between and in front of them. Why? Simply because there can’t be an audience of human beings, so why not these spectators? I suggest that if you want to hear the whole symphony you first listen to an audio recording of the massive opening night rituals. Iván's brother Ádám has his own Mahler cycle on CD now, but here the clear option is the BFO version, playable below: it’s among the very best of this insanely demanding grand eccentricity.

Fischer does indeed talk to his finned friends, but sparingly, and it’s never what you might expect. He speaks first of soldiers in disagreement, stops a speedy but articulate and atmospheric first Nachtmusik to show how the horn-call is challenged in different keys by trumpet, oboe and clarinet, before the nocturnal parade properly resumes (in case you're worried, no other movements are halted mid-flow). The haunted-ballroom scherzo goes faster even than the fish can; the Andante amoroso is "a love-scene between a cricket and a firefly. The cricket's name is Tristan and the firefly's name is Isolde". The finale is crazy-joyous, rarely so for the fundamentally melancholic Mahler: "try to learn how to have fun! Don't be so sad!". I love it that the immediate, enthusiastic "bravi!" that greets the final crash is Fischer's.

With his famous elasticity of movement, this compelling conductor gets fine-tuned playing from his highly engaged musicians, in state-of-the-art sound, all belying the relaxed nature of the visuals. The strings dip deep into the heftier dance-motions; moonlit serenades and sunny round dances gleam in pointillist chamber textures. You could argue that the final carnival parade might be even wilder with the adrenalin flowing between players and live audience; but we can’t have that right now, so this is the next best thing. It’s a one-off among filmed concerts; enjoy it while you can.

Watch the performance of movements 2 to 5 from Mahler's Seventh Symphony (click on the YouTube logo to view there and thence to full screen)

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