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NSO's Full-Blown Mahler

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

Mahler's Third used to be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's longest symphony. It has since been overtaken (whether by Richard Rodgers and Robert Russell Bennett's "Victory at Sea" or Havergal Brian's "Gothic" is a matter of debate and semantics), but it is certainly the longest piece in the standard orchestral repertory. At the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra last night, Iván Fischer's detailed and colorful performance -- sometimes exhilarating, sometimes earthbound -- clocked in at well over 90 minutes.

Length is rather beside the point, however, in describing this sprawling behemoth of a work, chockablock with melody and event, moments of rawness and terror and snarling brass juxtaposed with ravishing, even goopy layers of strings. Mahler wanted to write a symphony that contained the whole world, and the result is as large and amorphous as such a goal would indicate. The first movement ranges across more than half an hour, depicting the many moods of nature in a melange of gales and summer sunshine and music that sounds like drunken brass bands. It's fantastic, it's energizing, and it's completely crazy; presenting this kind of thing in the sedate environs of a modern concert hall actually undercuts its basic weirdness. The best response to this music, as Fischer let out all the stops and sent a bacchanal of sound spiraling out from the stage, is a delighted "What the hell was that?"

Fischer had a tough act to follow. His last performance with the NSO, in the spring, was the Mahler Second, or "Resurrection," Symphony, a piece that can leave you feeling as if the top of your head had been lifted off and life's meaning briefly revealed. (If all this sounds like strong language, well, that's Mahler.) Fischer had just released an acclaimed recording with his Budapest Festival Orchestra, and he brought some of the same mojo to Washington; the result was pretty spectacular.

The Third is no less ambitious but a lot harder to direct; it's so long-winded that at a point you have to simply give it its head. Perhaps it is impossible for a performance of it not to be uneven. Last night's concert was certainly exciting, but the movements at times seemed freighted with too much detail, the juxtapositions uncertain. To Fischer's credit, he always had an eye to the dramatic arc. He shaped each of the six movements so clearly that you could easily tell where you were in the stages of Mahler's world consciousness, and when one was about to yield to another.

One nice thing about the Third is that it batters down an orchestra's weakness: If your horns are sometimes shaky, having eight of them onstage belting out a huge opening theme is a fine direct assault on the problem. The NSO's brass generally rose to the occasion; there were a few unclean entrances, but as a counterweight were the fierce trombones, the rich trombone solo by Craig Mulcahy in the first movement and the absolutely stunning offstage posthorn solo by Steven Hendrickson in the third movement, when the distant gold of the posthorn merged with the held breath of the barely audible violins in a single quiet ray of light.

The symphony moves from inarticulate nature (the opening fanfare is supposed to represent the god Pan waking up, though it sounds an awful lot like a theme from Brahms's First) through language and beyond. Mahler wrote headings describing what was going on in each movement, and then suppressed them, thus ensuring that they would be reproduced faithfully in program and liner notes for all posterity. They move from "Summer Marches In" through "What the Flowers of the Meadow Tell Me" on to "What Man Tells Me" and "What the Angels Tell Me." "Man" actually takes the form of a woman: Birgit Remmert was the soloist singing a text from Nietzsche's "Thus Spake Zarathustra," though her jewellike voice was a little subdued and light for this contralto outburst. Chiming in after her was an exuberant chorus made up of the University of Maryland Concert Choir and the Children's Chorus of Washington, the children, in cherry-red vests, energetically imitating the sound of bells.

And with that the piece moves past language and on to love, or God; Mahler tinkered with the program a bit on that last one. Whatever you call it, it's inarticulate, solemn, radiantly beautiful and slow. It's hard to end a symphony with a slow movement, and it's hard to force an orchestra of humans not to be earthbound. The wonderful thing about big works of great art, though, is the payoff: the moment when everything comes together, and in a flash of illumination it is clear why you had to live with this particular work for so long in order for it all to make sense. Fischer, who through the evening was rough and debonair and courtly as called for, found this moment, and carried it through the work's towering ending; and the room resounded for a too-brief moment with the ringing silence of everything that had just happened before the audience broke into whoops of applause.

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