heard by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
On Sunday 13 March 2016, the Budapest Festival Orchestra played in the Sala Santa Cecilia in Rome. An exceptional non-subscription performance of Gustav Mahler's Third Symphony for one evening only, under the baton of Iván Fischer with Gerhild Romberger as alto, and the women's and children's choirs of the Santa Cecilia National Academy under the direction of Ciro Visco. This was a really unique event because orchestras other than the symphonic complex of the National Academy in the Sala Santa Cecilia seldom perform here. It was also an extraordinary event for the quality of the Budapest Festival Orchestra (especially, the brass and the woodwinds) and for Fischer's reading of the Austro-Hungarian composer's longest symphony.
Iván Fischer at the Parco della Musica on 13 March 2016. Photo © 2016 Musacchio & Ianniello
Mahler worked on this symphony for several years. In his specific plan, he developed a descriptive program (especially for the immense, thirty-five minute first movement): the depiction of rocks and mountains, the coming of summer and, with it, of flowers, birds and animals, culminating in a hymn to love. The other five movements are shorter (about sixty minutes altogether) and may offer different and diverging interpretations. After the great awakening of nature, Mahler creates a sense of tragedy — Nietzsche's Midnight Song from Also sprach Zarathustra and, then, a bitter-sweet sense of transient joy, the children's chorus from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. This atmosphere is almost an anticipation of the Abschied ('Farewell') which ends Das Lied von der Erde — the acceptance of the end of everything (see A Double Farewell, 14 January 2010). Mahler had in mind a seventh, more hopeful, movement, which became the initial part of his Fourth Symphony: Das himmlische Leben ('Life in Paradise') where several saints play and take care of their holy occupations under St Peter's eyes. It is important to note that both symphonies had their premiere in 1902. In 1897, Mahler had converted to the Roman Catholic church. Such a conversion was deemed an opportunistic step to be appointed General Director of Vienna Imperial Opera House. Even though there many pieces of evidence that his conversion was genuine — especially his letters to his wife when he learned that his life was ending — many authors still write about Mahler's opportunistic baptism.
The Third Symphony as played by the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer gives further evidence of a sincere conversion. Similar to the performances I have listened to with musical direction by Sinopoli and Chung, the center of the symphony is The Creation itself: from the original chaos (introduced by the horns), God creates the elements, the animals, the birds and finally man and woman. Nietzsche's Midnight Song (magnificently sung by Gerhild Romberger) is a warning to men and women about the depth of the world and the joy of eternity. It is followed by the song of the children and the angels, and the symphony concludes with a long, slow, D major movement in an atmosphere of transfiguration (where Fischer shows quotations from Verdi's overture to La Traviata Act I and the tempest scene in Otello, as well as the intellectual and musical connection to the Fourth Symphony's first movement. In short, Mahler's Third Symphony, as interpreted here, is the early twentieth century equivalent of Haydn's The Creation.
Contralto Gerhild Romberger and Iván Fischer conducting Mahler's Symphony No 3 at the Parco della Musica on 13 March 2016. Photo © 2016 Musacchio & Ianniello
Copyright © 15 March 2016 Giuseppe Pennisi,