Most of Beethoven’s symphonies don’t play in their entirety for the length of just the first movement of Mahler’s Third, the longest symphony in the repertoire.
This sprawling, ill-defined work, one that looks backwards and forwards in the composer’s output, presents great performing problems.
The mezzo-soprano soloist has comparatively nothing to do, the ladies’ and children’s choruses even less. The monster demands an iron grip upon its unfolding to make it succeed, and on Tuesday, opening the new Birmingham International Concert Season, it found one, in the genial, musicianly and generous conducting of Ivan Fischer.
His Budapest Festival Orchestra was on impressively top form. The exultant horns at the very opening roared with grandeur, and the resulting awakening of nature unwound and uncoiled with vivid expression, not least from the full-frontal cellos and basses.
Mahler’s demanding instrumental solos were confidently delivered – what a fabulous principal trombone, and such an expressive offstage posthorn soloist.
Yet every department made memorable contributions, and all the time the string section, constantly fussed at by Mahler’s scoring, provided a marvellous sonic backcloth to these Albrecht Durer-esque sketches.
Ladies of the CBS Chorus, and seniors from the CBS Youth Chorus were bright and clear, singing score-less, and Birgit Remmert sang with sustained warmth.
Only the visionary finale brought slight disappointment. I wish Fischer had gone the extra mile to deliver this rapturous outpouring at the slowest tempo possible, creating a Bernstein-like tension, which would have had us squirming for the ultimate release.
But he didn’t. Some ill-judged balances earlier on, and pragmatism here, meant that he didn’t know just what an amazing acoustic he had at his disposal.