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Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 1 (SACD)
Ivan Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra
Review By Max Westler


  With 172 recordings of the Mahler First symphony currently available, it might be hard to imagine a time when recordings of Mahler symphonies were few and very, very far between. When I went looking for a recording of the Mahler First Symphony in 1959 (I was 15, by the way, and just getting seriously addicted to classical music), I had four choices: Dimitri Mitropolous with the Minneapolis Orchestra on RCA (originally recorded in 1940), Jascha Horenstein with the Vienna Symphony on Vox), Bruno Walter with the New York Philharmonic on Columbia, and (soon to be Sir) Adrian Boult with the London Philharmonic on Everest. Though each of these had something to offer, there were also serious drawbacks.

The Mitropolous was exciting, visceral (and given the recording conditions, all the musicians and instruments crowded into a small studio), altogether miraculous. But the sound was constricted, colorless, and in the big climaxes, a dissonant mess. Horenstein was of course a great Mahler conductor (he famously conducted the British premiere of the "Symphony of a Thousand"); but the Vienna Symphony of that period was an inferior, scrappy ensemble, and they're too busy struggling to survive the experience to give Horenstein the kind of performance he's clearly asking for. Walter has a great orchestra at his disposal and the mono sound is both clear and warm, but even back then I felt something was lacking. Walter, who knew and worked closely with Mahler, tended to homogenize the composer in the studio, fearing perhaps that the neuroticism and extremes inherent in the music would drive away potential converts. It's interesting to note that Bernstein did just the opposite: he secured an audience for Mahler's music by unleashing those same inner demons. Then there was the Boult, my first stereo Mahler First: the sound was sensational (or so I thought at the time, listening on my Radio Shack kit), but the performance, like so much else from this conductor, was earnest, dutiful, and plodding. Boult might well have peered into the roiling cauldron of Mahler's psychology, but damned if he was going to tell us what he'd found there.

Now that we have an embarrassment of riches, there's no need to settle for inferior performances. Over the years, I've accumulated (amassed?) no fewer than sixteen Mahler Firsts, and I'd argue that any one of them would have served as a five-course meal back in the bad old days when I had to make do with the above-mentioned table scraps. Still, I have my favorites, and these represent a variety of approaches to the score: the nobility and spirituality of Guilini/Chicago Symphony and the earthy materiality of Bernstein/Concertgebouw; the existential, dark-shaded Tennstedt and the hearty, sun-lit Kegel/Dresden; the volatile and improvisational Honeck/Pittsburgh and the flowing classicism of Bertini/Cologne. Given those choices, the question remains, for me and maybe for you too, what could possibly justify the purchase of yet another version of the Mahler First?

Well, you already know where this is going. And indeed, I'm about to advance three compelling reasons you need to add this new recording to your collection no matter how many (or how few) others you already own. First, there's the phenomenal playing of Fischer's chosen instrument. The Budapest Festival Orchestra manages to combine the radiance and warmth of an old-world central European ensemble with the technical precision and polish of an American band. It can reproduce with equal conviction an intimate whisper or a sudden thunderclap, the hushed trill of the opening, the wild uproar of the finale. The lyric episodes sound vibrant and sensuous, the more dramatic ones fierce and intense. And every solo is detailed, expressive, full of character. In short, this is the most drop-dead gorgeous Mahler First that I've ever heard.

Those who have experienced Fischer's other Mahler recordings (thus far, the 2nd, 4th, and 6th) already know that he's one of our most accomplished and revelatory interpreters of that composer's music. His approach is single-minded, but without a trace of willfulness or mannerism. He's able to express the full range of emotions, those tumultuous extremes, while at the same time keeping a sure grip on the structure. This pays rich dividends throughout; the first movement unfolds at a leisurely pace, building very gradually, patiently, to its exuberant climax. In the hands of other conductors, even some of the best, the last movement can be episodic; here a coherent dramatic arc takes us from the stormy beginning to the triumphant conclusion.

Fischer gives us not just the letter of the score, but its spirit too. He scrupulously executes all of Mahler's detailed instructions, while at the same time communicating the inner life of the music. The opening is indeed "slow, held back, very leisurely" -- but also evocative, "the eternal spring" Mahler is asking for. In just this way, each separate movement casts its own spell.  Some versions of the symphony remind us that Berlioz exerted a strong influence on Mahler. In the rich orchestral sound that's both atmospheric and evocative, Fischer's performance summons up another decisive influence: Wagner.

I'm happy to report that the recording (by Jared Sacks and Hein Dekker) is on the same exalted level as the inspirational playing and conducting. We're given a wide and deep soundstage that fully captures both the delicacy and the fervor of the performance.





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