The Fourth is Mahler's "chamber" symphony, with the smallest orchestra and most subtle and transparent scoring of any of the composer's symphonies. It is not always played exactly as specified (often with a larger orchestra), but that is the case here. Very few conductors can match Fischer's extraordinary ability to search out and illuminate the most subtle and transient details of scoring, tempi and dynamics without sacrificing dramatic momentum and impact. And very few orchestras, even those of great repute, can equal the ability of the BFO to respond and render so precisely and convincingly their leader's vision of the music. Their greatness transcends questions of individual technical accomplishment and superior ensemble precision; those are givens. What takes them to the highest level is the character and unique shaping that every first chair player brings to their performances. Since my hometown band is the Chicago Symphony, I am accustomed to the very highest level of musicianship, whatever the repertoire. But there is a special affection in my heart for the Budapest Festival Orchestra.
The world of the Mahler Fourth is one of innocent fantasy, capped by the childlike lyrics of the last movement. Listening to this performance, I continue to be surprised again and again, as these performers illuminate telling details of orchestration and phrasing, giving this much-loved, very familiar score new freshness and excitement. I went back and played a few other favorite Fourths — Klemperer, Solti's earlier version with the London Symphony (the later Chicago version is a bit ponderous), Walter's early mono — and though all of them remain treasurerable performances, they sound more like each other than like Fischer.
Casting the soprano role is crucial to the overall impression left by any performance. In the Klemperer recording the magnificent voice of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is gorgeous, but certainly not "childlike." Ditto for the lovely but decidedly mature sound of Lisa della Casa for Reiner/Chicago. Coming closer to the kind of voice called for here are Solti's Sylvia Stahlman, Walter's Desi Halban, and Judith Raskin with George Szell/ Cleveland. In his DG recording Leonard Bernstein used a boy soprano — interestng, but to these ears not ultimately convincing. For Fischer, Miah Persson is just about perfect. Her youthful voice has an unusual but charming timbre, and she phrases her lines with the simplicity and innocence the text calls for.
The recorded sound is marvelous, even beyond the nominal five-note rating. Tonal balances are perfect; dynamic range is very wide and exceptionally revealing on the micro end; and we get a clear sense of the orchestra playing in a well defined space, with instruments stably located within a suitably wide and deep soundscape.
This recommendation is really a no-brainer. If there is as yet no Mahler Fourth in your collection, you won't go wrong with this one. And even if you already have good performances of this symphony, I believe that any real Mahler fan needs Fischer's interpretation to learn just that much more about this masterpiece.