We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020


Iván Fischer, Gerhild Romberger, and the Budapest Festival Orchestra as part of Lincoln Center's "Great Performers" Series

Ordinarily we are of the opinion that a work of art should speak for itself and not require long-winded explanations of its origin or meaning. That being said, we found Christopher H. Gibbs' pre-concert lecture on Mahler to be illuminating. We love learning in all its forms and especially when it corrects our misapprehensions.

We knew Mahler married Alma Schindler and later lost a daughter; we mistakenly believed such loss to be the source of his Kindertotenlieder. However, as we learned from Professor Gibbs, it was the poet Rückert who lost a couple children in 1860 and then wrote the heartbreaking poetry which Gustav Mahler set to music at the beginning of the 20th c. Mahler used his recollection of losses of his siblings when he was a child to access the emotions that infuse the music. A century ago, before vaccinations, childhood death was tragically common.  Take that, antivaxxers!

Another thing we learned was that Mahler's obsession with the anthology of folk poetry Des Knaben Wunderhorn was replaced by a similar obsession with the poetry of Rückert; the cheerful first four symphonies were succeeded by the weightier Fifth Symphony which we heard last night performed by the estimable and relatively new Budapest Festival Orchestra. Maestro Iván Fischer has been its Music Director and Conductor since its founding in 1983.

The cause of this mid-life change was Mahler's confrontation by his own mortality following a medical crisis. The charming melodies of his early songs, which were interpolated into his early symphonies, are all but gone and his later works are filled with anguish.

German singer Gerhild Romberger, able to sing both mezzo and contralto parts, impressed us with her impassioned delivery of the five songs of Kindertotenlieder. As we learned from Professor Gibbs, Mahler made it clear that he was influenced by Beethoven, Wagner, and his friend Richard Strauss by programming his works alongside those that inspired him. Listening carefully, we noticed that the cycle began with Beethoven's "fate theme"--duh duh duh DAH.

The orchestral writing is raucous and discordant but we enjoyed solos by the oboe, flute, and bassoon, as well as passages with plucked double basses. Ms. Romberger's dark voice was well suited to the melancholy of the text and she handled the upward leaps smoothly. Mahler's orchestration created quite a storm in the final song in which the poet expresses some guilt for letting his children go out in bad weather.

The Fifth Symphony involves a pair of movements followed by a Scherzo and another pair of movements. It opens with a funeral march far more agitated than those with which we are familiar. Mahler, for us, is unique in his ability to astonish us with strange effects. Trumpets, cymbals, and kettle drums contribute to the tumultuous cortège. The only "pretty" sound we heard came from the cello solo.

The Scherzo had some wonderful horn calls and its 3/4 time signature somehow had us thinking about Strauss' comic opera Der Rosenkavalier,  particularly scenes with Baron Ochs! Plucked violins suggested a kind of danse macabre.

The famous Adagietto gives the winds a break since it is scored for strings only, including the harp. Professor Gibbs was kind enough to give his audience copies of page 1 of the score notated by Mahler's friend and conductor Willem Mengelberg; these notes indicate that this movement was meant to be a love letter to Alma, and was in fact taken that way by her. Yes, dear reader, we did follow along with the score in hand, but it was only one page and a new experience for us.

So much for the movement's association with Death by means of its co-opting for ballet and for the film Death in Venice. However, Mahler had consulted with Sigmund Freud who theorized about the connection between Eros and Thanatos, and long before that Richard Wagner had composed his "Liebestod" in Tristan und Isolde. So perhaps it is both. Surely whether it is played in 7 minutes or 14 minutes would be a determining factor in how it would be perceived.

Last night's Adagietto was played in 11 minutes (yes, our curiosity led us to time it) and to us it felt more romantic than morbid. Perhaps one's perception depends upon one's mood. In any case, the Rondo which ends the piece is in a major key and seemed sunny. It had Maestro Fischer literally dancing on the podium. He struck us as a conductor who will do anything to get what he wants from his orchestra, much like a parent who will go through all kinds of contortions to get a child to eat!

If we were impressed by the warm welcome given to the Budapest Festival Orchestra, it was nothing compared to the lengthy standing ovation at the conclusion. It was surely a fine evening of music.

© meche kroop

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