At the end of a three-year grand tour, the young Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy completed his Italian Symphony in 1832 just after his 24th birthday. While never published during his lifetime because of his dissatisfaction with it, he hoped “all of Italy − its people, its landscapes and its art” would feature, and revised its second, third and fourth movements. Yet historically seen, his own sense of shortcomings was unique; generations of music critics since have called the Italian a quintessentially perfect work.

Iván Fischer © Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer
© Budapest Festival Orchestra

And so it was in Zurich under Iván Fischer’s baton. The unusual staging of the orchestra brought advantages; as usual with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the six double basses took their places high across the back of the orchestra podium, making a lively spectacle of their dynamic playing. The Allegro vivace has an underlying rhythm of a tarantella, and sparkled with effervescence, as the fine oboe, lyrical flutes and strings wrapped up their melodies in light, inviting sound. The Andante con moto is a solemn march-like processional whose presence expands and contracts throughout, while its sobering three-note ending was distilled here to a precious whisper. The Con moto moderato, an easily-flowing minuet with an contrasting middle section, brought up visions of fancy dress balls, the ebullient French horns lending their own flourish to the dance. Finally, the Presto, in the style of a lively 16th-century country dance, showed the conductor working with bracing enthsiasm and precision that delighted even the stodgiest audience member. The whole symphony was rousing and infinitely jolly and uplifting. If this is Italy, we could all use more of it.

After the interval, soloists Gerhild Romsberger and Robert Dean Smith took to the stage for Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The work was composed following a painful period in the composer’s life; his summer of 1907 was marked by three major personal setbacks: anti-semitism had cost him his post as Director of the Vienna Court Opera, his 4-year old daughter Maria had died, and he himself had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition. "With one stroke," he wrote to his friend Bruno Walter, "I have lost everything I have gained in terms of who I thought I was.”

Yet having been given a newly published collection of 8th-century Tang verse in Hans Bethge’s Die chinesische Flöte, Mahler composed an iconic work whose six songs pay tribute both to the joy of living, and the power of parting and salvation. Mezzo and tenor alternately sang with compelling persuasion and intimacy, almost as if the lyrics had been written for them.

Smith tackled Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow) with aplomb and affection. He clenched and raised his fist demonstrably on “Master of this house…” aware that even he, like the rest of us, was not exempt from the fact that “Death is dark, dark is death,” a phrase repeated three times with subtle variations. Romsberger’s rendition of Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely Man in Autumn) had an enchanting solo oboe accompaniment. Like in a lullaby, the singer’s sweet tone reflected “the wilted golden petals of lotus flowers” that long for the “sun of love” to dry up her tears.

Von der Jugend (Of Youth), the tenor smiled when describing the lyrics’ “well-dressed, drinking, chatting” friends. By the same token, the mezzo’s rendition of the “slender eyes and sweets limbs” of young girls in Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty) was filled with an unparalleled playfulness. Her song even included a Hollywood-like entrance of the handsome boys on “spirited horses”, which the orchestra met with fanfare and enormous volume. Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring) contains reckless good humor, and Smith was quick to engage an almost Wagnerian tenor over lines such as “Why work, and worry?” A stunning violin sounds the quintessential Mahler pastoral, to which the drunkard, though, far prefers the consolation of his wine flask.

Der Abschied (The Farewell) ends the songs on a gloriously romantic, if melancholy, note. Alone the bassoon around “the world falls asleep,” and oriental tones of the golden flute were worth the price of admission. But more, Romberger sang “he asked.. where he would go and why he must be” with a profound understanding of the nature of loss that had me mesmerized even long after leaving the hall. That Leonard Bernstein called Das Lied Mahler's "greatest symphony” made every bit of sense, for the BFO’s concert was an absolute triumph.