Bartók, Mahler

The Budapest Festival Orchestra came to the Salzburg Festival tonight, conducted by its founder Iván Fischer, to provide new ways of hearing Bartók and Mahler.

Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches for Orchestra opened the program.  An orchestration and elaboration done in the 1930s of music he wrote for piano a quarter of a century earlier, Bartók captured lyrical folk dances.  Fischer and his orchestra performed these as though written for a chamber wind ensemble, augmented by the rest of the orchestra.  The result showed off the versatility of this string section, which evoked the Hungarian traditions.  Where most orchestras have their strings synchronize their bowing, this orchestra had the woodwinds synchronize their own motions – heads flowing up-and-down and side-to-side with the music (with big sweeps – the instruments often shot upwards of the musicians’ heads).

Yefim Bronfman joined the orchestra for Bartók’s Piano Concerto #3.  Bartók viewed the piano fundamentally as a percussion instrument (a view I share), and tonight’s performance verified the assertion.  Although generally lyrical, this concerto – the last composition the composer completed before he died (the Philadelphia Orchestra gave its premiere after his death) – allowed some dialogue between the piano and, alternately, the woodwinds, strings, and tympani, but I do wonder if this piece might have done better if he had simply orchestrated the non-percussive piano parts.  Bronfman treated us to an (unidentified) encore – a flashy and also very-percussive solo piano piece where his fingers and hands turned into a blur as they athletically jumped all over the keyboard.

Mahler’s Symphony #4 is perhaps the lightest and most cheerful of his symphonies.  Not tonight.  Fischer did keep the size of the sound manageable, almost a chamber-music reading (albeit with full orchestra), but this was not by any means a light performance, and it certainly was not cheerful.  I may never have heard this work sound so dark and angst-ridden, and would not be surprised if the suicide rate in Salzburg spikes this evening.

The opening of the symphony dances.  But tonight Fischer inserted extra lilts in the dancing, to keep everything off-balance.  He also exposed separate lines elsewhere in the orchestra which conflict with the flow of one dance while suggesting another.  Yet he did this, keeping the music small – until about ten minutes in when the crescendo introduces the fate motif Mahler would develop in his fifth symphony, here left unresolved.

For the second movement, the principal horn (unidentified in the program) came to the front of the orchestra and sat next to the concert mistress (also unidentified in the program).  This was no sweet duet, but an interogation.  She played the solo violin parts with a sinister glare, while he answered on the horn with a lyrical self-defense.  The orchestra surrounded him with deep foreboding, always off-kilter.

The third movement adagio marked the darkest turn.  Taken at an especially slow pace, and with the orchestra keeping the sound low and delicate, this movement set the scene in nature, the successor of the closing movement of Mahler’s third symphony, but smaller and more contained.  But this was no happy march through the fields, but rather the wanderings of a troubled man seeking his doom in a place of utmost beauty.  The audience, which had been unusually restless through the concert so far, snapped to attention – no one moved, no one breathed, and even the coughing – which had plagued a good number of audience members – ceased.  I think this heart-wrenching interpretation made these ill people see the benefit of killing themselves.

Swedish soprano Miah Persson came out on stage slowly as this movement ended, allowing Fischer to move directly into the final movement.  She ended up standing where the hornist had been, and became subject to the same interogation.  Her sweat voice did not project fully in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, but Fischer kept a cap on the orchestra and never overwhelmed her with sound, although he did with anxiety, as she sang the lyrics about heaveny pleasures.

After several rounds of stunned applause (it was a good applause, but I think the audience was a bit emotionally overwhelmed), and perhaps well aware that they had to restore the audience’s mood after this, the performers offered us an encore.  I’m not sure what it was, but it sounded like a Latin prayer from the late baroque or early classical period.  Perrson sang beautifully, accompanied by a small chamber group within the orchestra.  About halfway through, the rest of the orchestra stood up in their places and joined in as a choir, singing the choral accompaniment.  An appropriate encore – something too cheerful would not work, but the mood had to become more hopeful – which provoked a standing ovation for one more round of applause.

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