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Fischer's Superb Vision Of Mahler
Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 2 in C Minor

Lisa Milne, soprano and Birgit Remmert, alto
Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Ivan Fischer
The Hungarian Radio Choir; KalmanStrausz, chorus master

Review By Phil Gold


  If you read my review of Ivan Fischer's recording of the Pastoral Symphony, you might expect this recording to be a bit special. I wrote:

If you give me another six discs of Fischer and the BFO, I fully expect to find the same qualities repeated. You either get it or you don't and these guys get it. We live in a golden age where such superb performances can be laid down and recorded in fine stereo and multi-channel sound for posterity.

Not every disc in this series is quite so wonderful. While Brahms's First is a revalation, Schubert's Ninth does not dominate all comers. I approached this recording with some trepidation. In fact I bought it quite a while back but was not ready to play it until now. Why? Well Mahler's Second represents something of a holy grail for me. Just once in my life I witnessed the conductor I admire most in the entire twentieth century, a truth teller, a man who could reveal the essential truth in the great central masterworks, from the St Matthew Passion to the Eroica Symphony, from the Magic Flute to the Brahms Requiem. I'm talking about Otto Klemperer. You could argue perhaps about the speed of some of his performances, but never the integrity, the understanding or the superhuman playing he coaxed from his players. That one concert was in London's Festival Hall, in May 1971, with the New Philharmonia Orchestra playing Mahler's Second. The experience was overwhelming, and I can conjure it up in my mind today as clear as can be. This was a great concert if ever there was one.

I also cherish his famous EMI recording made years eight years earlier with the Philhamonia Orchestra, with soloists Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Hilde Rossl-Majdan [EMI CDM7696622]. This has just be reissued in improved sound, along with the fourth, seventh and ninth symphonies plus Das Lied Von Der Erde in a 7CD bargain box [EMI 50999 2 48398 2 2]. There have been many highly praised recordings since then, notably Simon Rattle's performance with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra EMI 6473632], but none have shaken my view of the Klemperer's supremacy. There's a lot to admire in Rattle's performance, exquisite detail, superb recorded sound, gorgeous orchestral color, but it doesn't tell a story in the way that Klemperer's does, the way it is one coherent whole rather than a collection of parts. So I was in no hurry to listen to yet another version of the Resurrection symphony, one that might put either Klemperer or Fischer into a shadow.

I could delay no longer. Time to open the dual CD box. I'm not sure they couldn't have put the entire symphony onto a single disc, but if 82 minutes 13 seconds is too long for one SACD, why not break at the end of the momentous first movement, where Mahler indicated a five minute pause? Please take good notice of this criticism. There won't be much else I can pick on.

One of the joys of the Channel Classics series is the very fine warm sound captured in the Palace of Arts in Budapest. Another is the astonishing playing of Fischer's hand-picked orchestra. They truly play as one man. They may not generate the smooth perfect sound of the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic but that has little interest for me. In Mahler, I want to hear one man's vision, so the ensemble playing between the various parts of the orchestra is far more important than the coherence within any one section. I wish that man could be Mahler, and since we cannot have that, I'm drawn to those like Bruno Walter and Klemperer who worked closely with him and understood his wishes at first hand. Fischer is too young to have had that opportunity of course.

Fischer's Budapest Festival Orchestra may not have the burnished string tone of the Berlin Philharmonic or some other top notch ensembles but make no mistake it is if not the most refined amongst the most cohesive and explosive bands around, and singularly attuned to Maestro Fischer's wishes. Fischer's vision is very different from Klemperer's and closer to the lyrical style of Bruno Walter. He is some two minutes slower than Klemperer overall in this work, leading to a more relaxed and certainly more beautiful performance. He has the advantage of a superb high resolution recording and rarely has that been more important. The ability to capture the quietest moments in their full detail and to scale up to the monumental climaxes without compression means more in Mahler than perhaps anywhere else in music. Fischer builds organically throughout this recording, allowing the tension to increase gradually for a splendid resolution, rather than playing the music for all its worth right through as Bernstein might. There is a great deal more flexibility in the rhythms and the shaping of individual phrases than with Klemperer. This does not mean one is better or worse than the other performance, but each in fact is a full logical realization of that man's view of this colossal and overwhelming masterpiece. The soprano Lisa Milne, alto Birgit Remmert and the Hungarian Radio choir, sitting on their hands for most of the symphony, rise to the occasion and cap this wonderful performance with clear articulation and excellent precision and projection.

I enjoyed this rich but earthy performance immensely, fully confident every step of the way that the notes of each bar would fit perfectly into a coherent and satisfying overall picture. If you already have a fine performance of Mahler's Second on your shelf, you will appreciate that a work of this calibre, like the Choral Symphony before it, cannot be fully defined in any one recording. Take my word; there is a great deal to enjoy here. And if you are coming to this work for the first time, there is no better place to start than this splendid offering.





Recording Quality: 
















































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