Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, BBC Prom 54 at the Royal Albert Hall, with Enescu, Bartók and Mahler with Anna Lucia Richter as soloist. A provocative start to the programme with just the first movement (of 4) from George Enescu's Suite for Orchestra op 9 (1903), marked "Prélude à l'unisson". Though the movement itself is short (9 minutes) it contains within itself the themes which the following movements will develop, returning in the end to a recapitulation of the beginning. It is cyclic, and also an exercise in unison, the instruments in balance, suggesting a serene sense of natural order. Fischer's choice was inspired, since it enhanced the impact of Mahler's Symphony no 4 in G major to come, creating another mini-cycle, utterly appropriate given that Mahler's Fourth deals with the continuation of life on a different plane. Fischer moved seamlessly from Enescu to Bartók Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936). Patterns, again in the structure, where tranquility is balanced by staccato liveliness. Good definition of the sub-sections in each movement, emphasizing the inventive variety : particularly attractive balances between the two groups of strings, the darker voices contrasting well with the brightness of piano and celeste, and pounding percussion. Bartók is in the lifeblood of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, founded by Fischer in 1983. Arguably few ensembles do Bartók with as much idiomatic flair as this conductor and this orchestra, but even by their very high standards, this was a superb performance. Fischer was suffering from an eye disorder, but his powers were not diminished.
Plenty of gusto in Fischer's Mahler Symphony no 4, too, taking off with exuberant energy. The sleigh bells aren't there just as folksy decoration. No cars in Mahler's time, so if you wanted horsepower, horses were where it was at. Trains might have been faster, but horses are living creatures, a significant image in a symphony which deals with life and physical enjoyment.
Furthermore, speed alone isn't important, since Mahler marked it "Bedächtig, nicht eilen" not mad rush but orderly but unstoppable progression. A sleigh ride is a journey, rather like the cyle of life and death. Thus the transition to the restrained second movement, elegantly defined. At first the solo violin sings alone, then is joined by other instruments. Again, the symphony in essence. Everyone dies alone, but hopefully becomes part of a heavenly community. Some conductors bright out the malevolence in the violin part, evoking the medieval dance of death. In this case, however, the malevolence was understated, the violin, as a friend put it,morelike a village fiddler. That's not a problem, given that many listeners conceive that this is a "happy" symphony, which iut isn't, really. On the other hand, Fischer marked the chills in the strings so they felt like cold, cutting winds (sleigh-ride imagery again), and also the circular figures that follow, again emphazing cyclic change. Gradually the movement subsides before the sudden blast of sound, underlined by timpani and brass, that marks what might be the transitional moment, whatever it might signify. Richness and serenity returned, clean, high-pitched vibrations emanating into the distance.
No break before the final movement, enphasizing the coherence of the symphony as a whole. Anna Lucia Richter has a nice, pure tone, but also the sensuality that inspires the child's vison of a heaven full of nice things to eat. Some commentators have wondered why the child is so decidedly un-spiritual, and questioned the images of killing. The text, however, derived from oral traditions recorded in Des Knaben Wunderhorn (the book not the song collection), whose audiences would have made connections between the slain lamb and Christ offering himself as sacrifice, and to the children sacrificed in St Ursula's crusade. In any case, the idea of famine and death can be a metaphor for artistic edeavour : an idea not lost on Mahler who connected Das himmlisches Leben with Das irdisches Leben. I first heard Richter when she was only 21, singing Hugo Wolf with Christoph Prégardien who has a thing for nurturing young singers. She had the pure tone that works well with Wolf, but also a feel for the wilder edges of Mörike's poetry. These talents paid off well in this symphony, where a similar dichotomy exists. Richter has come a long way and is now well established. She used to specialize in Mozart, and probably always will, so it was fitting that her encore was Mozart Laudate Dominum, with members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra singing behind her.