Prefacing Mahler's Fifth Symphony with his Kindertotenlieder is a fortunate combination. The two opuses were composed around the same time and there are interesting connections that can be brought forward when juxtaposing them, such as the quote from the first song – “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n” – placed near the end of the symphony’s first movement. There is a danger though, not fully avoided during the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Monday night performance: namely, to perceive the symphony, and especially the Adagietto – a love song without words that Mahler composed for his beloved Alma – through the bleak lens of the song cycle. The music in the Adagietto did seem indeed to occasionally foretell the despair of the Ninth Symphony’s final movement.

Iván Fischer
© Akos Stiller

The soloist in Kindertotenlieder was German contralto Gerhild Romberger, making her New York debut. From her first sounds, a perfect continuation of the oboe and horn dialogue with which “Nun will…” starts, to the last words – “wie in der Mutter Haus!” – evoking a tentative consolation in the last song of the cycle, Romberger convincingly portrayed the tremendous grief of a parent struggling to accept the loss of his children. Her dignified, undemonstrative approach matched well the chamber-ensemble transparency achieved by the accompanying instrumentalists.

Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor needs a large orchestral apparatus and Iván Fischer, trying to reshape the soundscape, played around – as he does many times – with the ensemble’s layout. He invited principal horn Zoltán Szöke to sit in front of the orchestra for his solo interventions (beautifully rendered with what seemed to be, each time, a different timbre) during the Scherzo. He placed the harp on his right, the cellos in the center and the eight double basses behind the woodwinds, also splitting the brass section.

At every juncture of the score, Fischer knew perfectly well in what direction he wanted the music to flow. If the opening funeral march was not overwhelmingly tragic, that’s because he treated it as just a first step on an emotional journey. When he resisted letting the brass display its full force in the second movement chorale, he was actually preparing for an equivalent episode in the Finale that needed to be more forceful.

Drawing a unifying arch from despair to joy, from darkness to light, the conductor made clear the tripartite configuration of a meandering journey, underlining the close thematic link between the first two movements, stressing the Scherzo’s pivotal role, making the Adagietto sound as a prelude to the extrovert Rondo-Finale. Along the way, one could have felt more anguish during the rendition of the Trauermarsch or expect more hysterical outbursts during the second movement, that the composer wanted interpreted with "greatest vehemence". Instead, it was an interpretation where frenzy was less important than balance and precision. There were multiple magical moments: the trumpet (Tamás Pálfalvi) sometimes leading, sometimes just following the flow in the first movement, the wistful cellos in the second, the fugal passages in the fifth. As it should, the Scherzo was the fulcrum of this rendition, its Ländler imbued with old-world charm, full of natural imagery (as opposed to the pure eidetic world of the Kindertotenlieder), oscillating between luminous and opaque, energetic and contemplative moments, but still inexorably shifting from full-of-turmoil despair to sheer exhilaration.

As always, the players of the BFO proved themselves to be a remarkably cohesive ensemble, responding with exactitude and enthusiasm to every request that their Music Director made. They have been collaborating for almost four decades and one could not discern the slightest sign of fatigue.