BWW Review: BUDAPEST FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA IN A MAHLER GROOVE at David Geffen Hall At Lincoln Center
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was a complicated soul. He had a relatively brief but eventful life, a life filled with a superabundance of creativity, love, imagination, and during which he attained the heights of the music world (among other appointments, he was the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic for two years), yet it was a life plagued by less than optimal health and by tragedy. He was a composer who sought connections between his music and that of other composers while expressing his own unique voice. Constantly in search of new compositional techniques, formats, and contrasts as well as the "tried and true," Mahler's audiences have ridden tsunamis of emotions and the musicians who play it experience tsunamis of notes.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra, one of the world's premier ensembles, performed two of Mahler's most distinctive compositions on Monday, February 24, 2020 as part of the Lincoln Center Great Performers series. Although the Orchestra is only about 36 years old, it has firmly established itself as a symphony orchestra of international standing. Led by founder Iván Fischer, the ensemble's presence in New York is always an occasion, and this concert did not disappoint.
"Kindertotenlieder" from 1901-04 ("Songs on the Death of Children"), a cycle of five songs based on the poetry of Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) was a somber yet lovely introduction to the concert. Rückert's poetry was admired by a number of 19th century composers along with Mahler, most notably Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann. Two of Rückert's children had died in the 1830s, prompting him to write hundreds of poems to pour out and work through his bottomless grief. Perhaps thinking of the early deaths of his siblings, Mahler decided to set three of these poems to music. He told a friend that when he was writing them he tried to imagine himself "in the position of a man whose child had died." These turned out to be prophetic words. By 1904 he was the father of two little girls by his wife, Alma Schindler. He was moved to set two more of Rückert's heartbreaking poems to his own delicately orchestrated music before the unthinkable(and unexpected) happened and he lost his four year old daughter Maria Anna. He later said that if she had died before he composed the song cycle he would not have been able to complete it. The songs, according to program annotator Christopher H. Gibbs, are a parental meditation on death and filled with an almost unbearable sense of loss.
Contralto Gerhild Romberger's plush, rich voice gave these five gentle pieces tremendous pathos. Oboist Johannes Grosso's plaintive, sweet playing along with solid, steady French horn work by Zoltán Szöke provided Ms. Romberger with warm support for her expressive, true contralto singing. Although the questionable acoustics of Geffen Hall occasionally allowed the orchestra to overwhelm her, Ms. Romberger's performance was truly one to treasure. Mr. Fischer's focused dynamics created a stunning triple pianissimo at the conclusion of the piece. There was absolute audience silence for a few moments, an unusual and welcome occurrence.
Mahler was what we in the twenty-first century would call a multi-tasker. While he was hard at work on the "Kindertotenlieder" he was also composing what became his Symphony No.5 in C # minor (from 1901-02). The Orchestra onstage suddenly grew in size with a huge complement of over fifty string players, creating a most voluptuous and bountiful soundscape. There was a phalanx of eight bass players directly facing the Hall (usually they are off to one side of the orchestra). But the most interesting placement of all was that of principal French horn Zoltán Szöke, who was front and center almost under Mr. Fischer's left arm. This enabled his brilliant playing of the instrument's prominent solo to be heard in all its glory. The blazing trumpets which opened the symphony were confidently led by principal Tamás Pálfavi. Mahler had no set "program" or story for this symphony. In that way it was "absolute" music, whatever story there might be was left up to the listener. Or not, because it was something Mahler conceived of as music for its own sake. However, the famous fourth movement Adagietto scored only for harp and strings, was meant as a love gift for the composer's young wife. Although Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss both composed music as gifts for their wives, this exquisite Adagietto is breathtaking in its complex simplicity. It is a sublime gift to us all and it was sublimely performed by this Orchestra.
The Great Performers series continues throughout the year, bringing performers as varied as Jeremy Denk, the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Emerson String Quartet, and more to Lincoln Center. For information and tickets go to lincolncenter.org or call 212-721-6500.