I don’t speak Hungarian, but I understood conductor Iván Fischer perfectly well when he implored the socially distanced audience at Béla Bartók National Concert Hall to keep their masks above the nose and mouth for the duration of the programming. Such is concert-going in these strange times. I also gleaned the symbolism of the skinny, solitary tree planted center-stage among the players of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. The afternoon’s program of Beethoven and Mahler considered the natural world — a wise choice at a time when the health and habitability of the earth is a foremost topic.

Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra © Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra
© Budapest Festival Orchestra

The opening performance of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony communicated the joy of nature, which has served for so many as a balm during the difficult months of the pandemic. Fischer led a performance of clean brightness, with piquant string textures that recalled chamber music. The effect was distinctly continental — I’ve never heard an American orchestra approach this symphony so delicately. This attitude didn’t always signal success – the “storm” of the fourth movement seemed abrupt and underwhelming – but it kept the listener engaged throughout a luxurious reading that stretched nearly an hour. Principal flute, oboe and clarinet warrant special mention for vividly capturing the sounds of whistling wind and gossamer birdsong.

Beethoven’s symphony speaks to a personal communion with the elements, whereas Das Lied von der Erde reminds listeners that the earth will outlive us all. Fischer shaped the six-movement work masterfully, limning the peculiar divide between symphony and music drama that Mahler creates. The orchestra plumbed the dramatic depths of Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde and conveyed the Alpine cheeriness of Von der Jugend. The sustained narrative of Der Abschied was riveting.

Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra © Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra
© Budapest Festival Orchestra

Tenor Andrew Staples sang expressively throughout, though he needed much of Das Trinklied to warm up. Even then, a slight hollowness of tone and occasionally pronounced vibrato kept his interpretation from reaching maximum success. No such problem troubled mezzo Elisabeth Kulman, whose sense of float ideally suited the otherworldliness of the female vocal line. Kulman adapted nicely to Fischer’s slow tempo in Der Einsame im Herbst and turned Der Abschied into an arresting monodrama. Each repeated “Ewig” took on a new, deeper level of meaning.

The superbly directed livestream moved silently among the orchestra members, highlighting the various contributions from the woodwinds, low strings, brass, percussion and celesta without feeling obtrusive. Mahler famously worried that his great opus would be too depressing for audiences to handle — on the contrary, it revived this virtual audience member.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream.

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