The best of Prom 54 came last. As the Budapest Festival Orchestra brought the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 to a close, Anna Lucia Richter ghosted onto the stage to sing us the “child’s view of heaven” that forms the fourth movement, in a voice which exuded as much angelic purity as her striking white gown.

Anna Lucia Richter, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Anna Lucia Richter, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The High Romantic text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn can ring strangely to modern ears, and there are plenty of sopranos who find themselves unable to obey Mahler’s instruction to sing it “in a happy, child-like manner, absolutely without parody”. Richter isn’t one of them: she allied the absolute purity of timbre to the most cheerful demeanour, not to mention perfect legato and clarity of text. And in spite of the Royal Albert Hall’s size, Richter had no difficulty being heard above the orchestra – to the point that she had an extra gear in reserve, notching up the emotion in lines like “Sankt Peter im Himmel sieht zu”.

The Fourth is very different from other Mahler symphonies – indeed, from most symphonies by any composer – in being a piece that is gentle of pace from beginning to end: every movement is marked with some synonym of “leisurely”. So you’re not listening to a piece filled with shifts between high drama and aching nostalgia: rather, this is the gentlest of progressions to heavenly bliss. That romantic treatment is what Iván Fischer gave it, taking the utmost care of producing beautiful timbre from every instrument combination. There was notable beauty from the four flutes playing together in the first movement, a glorious blend of flute, violin and horn played in the high register in the third, and many places where the low hum of double basses provided the softest of feather beds for the sounds above them. The strings of the BFO are impressive in how together they are: each section really sounds like a larger version of a single instrument, and they are especially fine when they play perfectly weighted pizzicato, or when Mahler moves into his Viennese dance rhythms.

Iván Fischer © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Iván Fischer
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

But these dances were courtly rather than wild: even Freund Hain’s fiddle in the second movement was strangely congenial. The mood was broken only by the cheeky clarinet outbursts and occasional moments from the brass (the trumpets, in the first movement, play a theme that prefigures the funeral march of the Fifth): otherwise, the music was played to lull one towards bliss, the famous sleigh bells serving to point the way rather than to thrill.

The concert opened with George Enescu’s short Prélude à l’unisson. The title tells you how this work is unusual: the instruments play in unison throughout. In the absence of vertical harmony, the harmony is created purely by arpeggio, with the effect being of listening to echoes from an old world. It gave us a chance to appreciate quite how cultured the BFO’s strings are, how impressively Fischer balances them with perfect evenness of extended timpani roll, and how music that is apparently so restricted can create atmosphere.

Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The main piece in the first half was Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and here, the BFO were disappointing. For sure, the qualities of the string section – togetherness, poise, balance, beauty of tone – were as much in evidence here as in the rest of the concert. Their ability to create a gentle mood was as good – in this case, a dark one rather than Mahler’s heavenly sunshine. But unlike the Mahler, this work contains plenty of opportunities for changes of pace and intensity. In this performance, when things speeded up or became more sharply accented, there wasn’t enough drive and urgency; when the score gives the opportunity for rapture, the mood felt muted. The variety of the percussion effects, timpani glissando amongst them, made some impact, but less than what one might have hoped for.

At the very end of the whole concert, after the sublime beauty of the close to the Mahler, the BFO gave us one of their trademark moments for an encore, the orchestra both playing and singing Mozart’s Laudate Dominum, impressing us with their ability to do this at all, and giving us another chance to hear Richter’s pure timbre. A treat to send us away.

***11