Ivan Fischer leads NSO in majestic Mahler concert
When the gifted Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer was given the "principal guest" spot on the National Symphony Orchestra's podium in 2006, speculation naturally had him in line to succeed Leonard Slatkin as music director. Instead, Fischer was named principal conductor for two years, beginning this season. (For you gossip fiends, word on the street was that his music director chances faded when he expressed some candid views on certain weak spots within the NSO.) The top job, as you know, just went instead to Christoph Eschenbach. Personally, I'm looking forward to Eschenbach, whose distinctive artistry I've admired for years. But I could have been just as enthusiastic if Fischer had received the nod, especially after the results he achieved Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in a program devoted to Mahler's Symphony No. 3.
To begin with ...
The conductor never lost sight of the overall architecture of the sprawling, multi-layered piece, never resorted to bombast or detoured into extended reverie, yet the interpretation was continually charged with both drama and poetry. I loved the almost chamber music-transparency he achieved in the gentler passages of the long first movement, as much as I delighted in the brisk buoyancy he brought to the march episodes. The coda was truly exhilarating. Craig Mulcahy's trombone playing in this opening movement had great tonal and expressive richness. The second movement found the violins at their sweetest as Fischer deftly sculpted the lilting waltz. The scherzo emerged with a mix of beauty and mystery; a small glitch aside, Steven Hendrickson's glowing offstage posthorn solo drifted into this dreamscape tellingly. Birgit Remmert's vibrant contralto conveyed much of the depth of the Nietzsche poem in the fourth movement and made its mark on the subsequent choral movement, where the Children's Chorus of Washington and University of Maryland Concert Choir produced a lovely sound.
The soul of Mahler's Third is the finale, a kind of hymn that builds to a transcendent peak where everything about nature and humanity comes together in one profound statement of love's power. Fischer's tempo seemed just about right, slow without being heavy, never metronomic. His phrasing had an affecting intensity that carried the whole orchestra to the mountaintop, where the last chord was allowed a marvelous extension and, thankfully uninterrupted by premature applause, a turning inward, a softening in the very last seconds -- not an easy thing to achieve. A long silence followed in the hall, the mark of a truly rapturous performance.
Fischer is in town for another couple of programs with the NSO. If Friday's Mahler performance is any indication, those are going to be two very hot weeks.
BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO