The Hungarian conductor on why Mahler’s Third is the perfect symphony and why he will never conduct the Eighth.

What was your personal route into the Mahler symphonies, and was it love at first hearing for you?

Being a student in Vienna I attended the rehearsals and concerts of Leonard Bernstein’s Mahler cycle. It was an extraordinary experience. In that time there was a cult of Mahler symphonies in the circle of music students in Vienna.

Who do you respect most among the great Mahler interpreters of the past, and what particular qualities did they bring to the music that you feel is important approaching this composer?

I never like to use the word “interpretation” because music doesn’t need it. Mahler wrote everything in his music, it can be easily understood. I am actually surprised how often he is misunderstood. Although he did his best to notate everything to the smallest detail. Of the old generation I admire Mengelberg, whose scores I copied because he has many interesting ideas written there. And he knew Mahler well.

Ivan FischerIván Fischer. Photo © Marco Borggreve

Which symphonies do you yourself respond most immediately to, and are there any which you find ‘difficult’, either structurally or in terms of the emotional journey?

They are all easy to understand. Except the Eighth, which I will never conduct because I feel I have no key to it. And I try to avoid the Sixth because it has a tragic ending and I question if one is morally right to do such a thing. But even the Sixth symphony is close to me, I can completely identify with it.

Of course, there are many different elements among the six movements of the Third Symphony, but what do you believe Mahler most wanted to ‘say’ when he composed the work?

All his symphonies are full and include a general, complete vision. Moods differ of course and the Third Symphony is maybe one of the happier ones. The endless melody of the last movement can be seen as pure, floating, divine love but it also hurts. Mahler’s beauty always hurts because it is too beautiful to bear.

Do you feel he achieved his objectives? And do you see the Third as the end of a journey for Mahler, or just a stage on his way towards the later symphonies?

In this phase, Mahler combined his musical ideas with the naive, childlike view of the world. He either used poems of Des Knaben Wunderhorn or an angel-like simplicity.  Even Nietzsche’s great poem has a naive attitude. He completely achieved his objective. The Third is a perfect symphony, it cannot be written better. Later he went into other directions.

What are the greatest challenges facing a conductor tackling the Third Symphony? And are those the same challenges that face an orchestra?

One needs to understand the musical phrases. The oboe player should become a flower blown by the gentle wind. The trombonist should play with the sound of an ancient, giant creature with a huge but tender heart. The timpanists should understand that they are bells at the end of the symphony. The conductor should help the musicians to overcome and surpass the limitations of their instruments.

The first movement is the longest single movement that Mahler ever composed. Why do you think he wanted it to be so massive in proportion to the other movements?

Probably this is the way it developed during composing. I don’t think Mahler planned the length. At a certain point the music composes itself.

How hard is it to separate the technical demands of managing such a sprawling work with the temptation to get lost in the extremes of Mahler’s emotional agenda?

I don’t find it hard at all. Mahler’s extraordinary honesty is very helpful. It takes you on a journey which is very logical. Of course you need to drop your ego to conduct it, but this is true with all composers.

There are those who condemn Mahler the symphonist as self-indulgent and ill-disciplined. Do they have a point?

Yes, because the form is not as clear as say Beethoven’s or Bruckner’s. Mahler writes music that flows out of his soul like somebody who speaks and speaks. Like in a psychoanalytical session. This immediacy, this not-planned form makes him so unusually honest.

Mahler was only 51 when he died. Where do you think he was headed after the Ninth (or Tenth) symphonies? Would he have run out of steam, or might he have broken out of tonality?

My guess is that he may have found a different focus. Like the old Verdi, who composed Falstaff, a style that is different than anything else before. Maybe a Mahler-comedy? Or a Mahler-opera? Who knows?

Your Mahler cycle only has Nos 7 and 8 to go. Is there a reason that you have saved them until last?

No, the Seventh is coming out soon. And I will never do the Eighth.

Iván Fischer’s Mahler Symphony No 3 is out on Channel Classics. It will be reviewed in Limelight‘s October 2017 issue.