Iván Fischer conducts Mahler’s Symphony No. 3
29 Jan 2016
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (104 min.)
Anna Larsson Mezzo-Soprano, Gijs Leenaars Chorus Master, Kai-Uwe Jirka Chorus Master, Damen des Rundfunkchors Berlin, Johannes Stolte Chorus Master, Boys of the Staats- und Domchor Berlin
Iván Fischer about Mahler’s Third Symphony (11 min.)
“Now just imagine a work so grand that the whole world is actually reflected therein – so that one is, so to speak, only an instrument upon which the universe plays,” Gustav Mahler wrote in the summer of 1896 to his lover, the soprano Anna von Mildenburg. The composer was spending the holidays in the Austrian town of Steinbach am Attersee to work on his new symphony, the Third, free of his commitments as conductor. With this work, which has six rather than the usual four movements, Mahler went beyond the scope of all that preceded him, exceeding the Second Symphony by about 15 minutes – a piece whose duration was already of extensive length, with a playing time of about 90 minutes. The first movement alone lasts more than half an hour. Brusque, garish, advancing in an unrelenting march tempo, it pulls the listeners into an unsettling world. Mahler develops a musical universe, a cabinet of curiosities of life and nature, so to speak, from the raw, from below. Mahler originally gave each movement a programmatic title. He later dispensed with the names, but the “inner programme” remained nonetheless.
Mahler forges together the sublime and the vulgar: echoes of military and funfair music, grotesque humour and folksy cheeriness are found next to profound desperation and mystical transcendency. In the fourth movement there is an alto solo on the words of the poem “O Mensch! Gib acht!” from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra; the fifth movement is a choral movement in which Mahler has set the song “Es sungen drei Engel” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn to music. New as well: the symphony ends not with a fast movement, but with a hymnal Adagio. Incidentally: the first complete performance of the Third Symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker took place in January 1907 conducted by Gustav Mahler. Since then, the orchestra has performed this work with many renowned conductors. The Hungarian Iván Fischer, a guest conductor with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1989, presents himself here for the first time in the framework of Philharmoniker orchestral concerts as a Mahler interpreter.
“Like a wild, mysterious landscape”
Gustav Mahler’s Musical Cosmos: the Third Symphony
To contemporary listeners this work must have seemed to reach record-breaking proportions. With his Third Symphony, which lasts more than 100 minutes and calls for approximately 200 participants, Gustav Mahler exceeded the boundaries of everything that had been written in this genre until then. Composed in 1895/1896, the monumental work seemed to reflect the spirit of the age – the late nineteenth century, with its belief in progress and growth, its urban centres expanding to cities with more than a million inhabitants and its industrial complexes as bustling as ant colonies. “That’s colossal!” people used to exclaim enthusiastically in those days if they were particularly impressed by something. Mahler’s Third appears to be “colossal” not only in terms of its length and gigantic forces, however, but also because of its programmatic idea. This score aspires to do nothing less than set the universe to music.
A new beginning: Hardly anything but sounds of nature
According to Mahler’s plan, the symphony was to begin with the creation, the still inanimate world. “It has almost ceased to be music; it is hardly anything but sounds of nature,” Mahler described this opening to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner. “It’s eerie, the way life gradually breaks through, out of soulless, petrified matter. I might equally well have called the movement ‘What the Mountains Tell Me’.” On another occasion he chose the image of the seasons to illustrate his concept. The symphony begins in winter, when all life has frozen and turned to ice. Then it thaws, however, and the world blossoms again. In one of his sketches Mahler entitled this section “Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In”. He depicts the awakening of summer with a march that energetically presses forward and finally prevails. Animate nature has triumphed over the inorganic, and the earth is prepared for everything that now comes: plants, animals and human beings.
Mahler had initially drafted the second movement under the title “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”. It colourfully depicts the realm of the pastoral idyll, with the reedy tone of the oboe and a graceful, rococo-like theme, which is traditional in its conception and exquisitely orchestrated. “It is the most carefree thing that I have ever written – as carefree as only flowers are,” Mahler declared. Of course, it portrays more than the innocent cheerfulness of flowers. During this Tempo di Menuetto Mahler also makes a stormy wind blow across the meadow. The flowers are shaken about vigorously and groan on their stems, until gentle breezes return and rays of sunshine caress the blossoms.
In the animal kingdom, which he brings to life in the third movement, Mahler takes his listeners to a folk realm. He makes use of self-citation, quoting from one of his early songs, Ablösung im Sommer(Replacement in Summer). The poem on which it is based announces that the cuckoo, who had entertained the animals in the forest so well with his calls, is dead. A suitable replacement is quickly found, however – Mrs Nightingale: “She hops and sings, she’s cheerful all the time, when other birds are silent,” in the words of the poem. The circumstances of this “replacement” reflect a certain ambivalence, however. On the one hand, the death of the cuckoo is a sign of the potential threat which all living things are exposed to – thus, it is not a nature idyll but an allegory of danger. On the other hand, Mahler depicts this sinister event with audacious, tragicomic music that imitates the cuckoo’s call and seems more like a satirical verse.
The first human being
“The Scherzo in particular, the animal piece, is at once the most scurrilous and most tragic that ever was,” Mahler told Natalie Bauer-Lechner. “In this piece it is as if Nature herself were pulling faces and putting out her tongue. There is such a gruesome, panic humour in it that one is more likely to be overcome by horror than laughter.” At the end of the movement Mahler intensifies the moment of horror even more by again evoking the elemental forces of inanimate nature which he introduced at the beginning of the symphony and superimposing them on the animal world like a heavy shadow. In the middle of the Scherzo, he adds two post horn episodes, which the principal trumpet must play offstage. For Mahler the post horn represents the interface between nature and culture, between the world of plants and animals and the appearance of humanity.
The composer knows all too well, however, that mankind is highly imperfect and thus cannot be placed at the summit of his hierarchical structure of the world. Man is born and man dies. Although he longs for an end to his pain and suffering, he cannot get his fill of the joys of life, the sensual pleasures. To illustrate these ideas Mahler sets the poem “O Mensch! Gib Acht!” (O man! Take heed!) from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra(Thus Spoke Zarathustra), which ends with the lines “But all joy seeks eternity, seeks deep, deep eternity”. The contralto soloist sings the words almost like a sleepwalker, enveloped in darkness, and the music rarely leaves the sphere of subdued, shadowy sounds and dark colours. In this unreal, mysterious tonal realm it becomes obvious that the greatest human longing must be doomed to remain a dream, no matter how beautifully it is extolled in song.
In the last two movements Mahler describes how this longed-for eternity could be reached. In the fifth movement he uses the form of the parable. He draws on verses from the folk song collection of the Wunderhorn and sets the poem Armer Kinder Bettlerlied(Poor Children’s Begging Song), which is about the Apostle Peter, who has violated the Ten Commandments but is nevertheless absolved from all his sins. Mahler composed “celestial music” for it, bright, heavenly music for women’s and boys’ chorus, with the sound of bells and chimes.
“What God Tells Me”
The magnificent finale is much more abstract and metaphysical, actually reaching the ultimate goal and climax, “the highest level from which one can view the world”. For Mahler this highest level was love, meaning charity or compassion. He wrote that he could just as well have called this movement “What God Tells Me”, for God can only be understood as love. He composed an Adagio of heavenly length to reveal his vision of love: 25 minutes of great tranquillity in which the themes of the movement gradually unfold – as though lost in reverie. Time seems to stand still, finiteness appears to be overcome and human limitations transcended. That applies in particular to the beginning of the finale, with its comforting, seraphically beautiful and blissful melody, which is profoundly moving.
“My music is lived,” Mahler once declared. One actually feels one has met him after hearing the Third Symphony. Arnold Schoenberg also had this feeling when he attended a performance of the work in Vienna in 1904: “I have seen your soul, naked, stark naked,” he wrote to Mahler afterwards. “It lay before me like a wild, mysterious landscape with its terrifying crevasses and abysses, alongside bright, lovely, sun-drenched meadows, idyllic resting places. ... I think I have experienced your symphony. I felt the struggle for illusions; I felt the pain of one disillusioned; I saw the forces of evil and good contending ... . I sensed a human being, a drama, truth, the most ruthless truth.”
Iván Fischer has been Music Director of the Konzerthaus Berlin and principal conductor of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin since the start of the 2012/13 season. Born in Hungary, Fischer studied piano, violin and cello in Budapest, continuing his education in Vienna where he was in Hans Swarowsky’s conducting class. For two years he was Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s assistant. His international career took off in 1976, when he won the Rupert Foundation conducting competition in London. In 1983, Iván Fischer founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra, an ensemble for which he still serves as musical director. An intense artistic partnership also links him closely with the Vienna State Opera. Fischer has been a regular guest in major opera houses of the world (e.g. London, Zurich, Paris and Brussels). As a guest conductor he works with the finest symphony orchestras of the world, like the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the Munich and Israel Philharmonic. In 1989 he gave his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker and has returned several times since; his last performance with the orchestra was in March 2014 when he conducted works by Johann Christian Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Fischer is also successful as composer; he is a founder of the Hungarian Mahler Society and patron of the British Kodály Academy. Iván Fischer received the Golden Medal Award from the President of the Republic of Hungary, and the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum for his services to help international cultural relations. The French Government named him Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. In 2006 he was honoured with the Kossuth Prize, Hungary’s most prestigious arts award. In addition, he is an honorary citizen of Budapest.
Anna Larsson graduated from the University College of Opera in Stockholm in 1996. The Swedish singer has established herself on the opera stage and in the concert hall as one of the most renowned altos internationally. As an opera singer, Anna Larsson focuses on roles in the music dramas of Richard Wagner in which she has appeared at theatres such as the Royal Opera houses in Copenhagen and Stockholm, the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, the state opera houses in Vienna, Munich and Berlin and at festivals including Salzburg, Florence and Aix-en-Provence. In concert, her vast repertoire ranges from Handel’s Messiah, Verdi’s Requiem and works of Mahler to Elgar’s Sea Pictures. The artist regularly performs with the world’s leading orchestras and conductors, including Daniel Barenboim, Herbert Blomstedt, Gustavo Dudamel, Bernard Haitink, Zubin Mehta and Esa-Pekka Salonen. She made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in Mahler’s Second Symphony (conducted by Claudio Abbado) during a European tour by the orchestra in October 1997; she most recently performed with the orchestra in Berlin in January 2012, singing Mahler’s Rückert Lieder conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Anna Larsson, who is also a passionate performer of lieder, was named Royal Court Singer by King Carl XVI Gustaf in 2010. In summer 2011 she opened her own concert hall Vattnäs Konsertlada near Mora (Sweden).
The Rundfunkchor Berlin (Berlin Radio Choir) is a regular guest at major festivals and the chosen partner of international orchestras and conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Christian Thielemann and Daniel Barenboim. In Berlin the choir has long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The exceptional breadth of its repertoire, its stylistic versatility, delight in experimentation, stunning responsiveness and richly nuanced sound all contribute to making it one of the world’s outstanding choral ensembles. Its work is documented by many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards. With its experimental project series, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: e.g. the interactive scenic version of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig / Sasha Waltz & Guests attracted great attention. With annual activities such as the Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people or the education programme SING! the choir invites people of various walks of life to the world of singing. Academy and Schola support the next generation of professionals. Founded in 1925 the ensemble was shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe, Robin Gritton and Simon Halsey (2001-2015). As of the 2015/16 season Gijs Leenars took over as new principal conductor and artistic director. The Rundfunkchor last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker earlier this January in Fauré’s Requiem, conducted by Christian Thielemann.
The Staats- und Domchor Berlin is one of the famous boys’ choirs in Germany, with a history that goes back to the 15th century. Its first golden age was in the 19th century under the direction of conductors such as Felix Mendelssohn, Otto Nicolai and August Neithardt. In 1923 the ensemble was renamed the “Staats- und Domchor Berlin” and became affiliated with the University of Music. Today, the choir provides music for services at the Cathedral of Berlin and also for state occasions. In addition, it participates in performances in opera houses and concert venues in Berlin, and holds its own concerts with a repertoire which includes the great works of the Western choral tradition from the Middle Ages to modern times. Since 2002, the choir has been led by Kai-Uwe Jirka, professor of choral conducting at the Berlin University of the Arts. In addition to many other awards, the Staats- und Domchor Berlin won the European Youth Choir Culture Prize in 2002. Tours have taken the choir to other European countries, Asia, the USA and Israel. The Staats- und Domchor most recently participated in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2014, equally in performances of Mahler’s Third Symphony, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.