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Mahler Symphony No.5.

mahlerreviews.com, by Huntley Dent
With most critics, especially in the UK, Iván Fischer's Mahler has gone down well. The reasons aren't mysterious. The conducting is flowing and natural, the playing fine (if not world class), and the recorded sound pure and transparent. Those same qualities are in evidence here, but so far other reviewers haven't been impressed by the overall result. I'm in the position, then, of a leopard changing its spots - I haven't been much moved by the earlier instalments in Fischer's ongoing Mahler cycle, but this new Fifth is splendid in every way

To begin with, as in Fischer’s account of the First Symphony, the music-making feels fresh and the conductor’s rapport with his musicians is complete, resulting in a vibrant connection that awakens every bar of the score. There’s no dull, routine playing or a display of faked, inflated emotion. Fischer is naturally a lyrical interpreter of Mahler, and in the first movement the Trauermarsch isn’t played for tragedy (as it isn’t by Boulez, either). Some listeners may consider this a fault, and generally speaking I would, too, but Fischer’s more dynamic approach is appealing for its excitement. As in all his Mahler recordings to date, the phrasing is supple without exaggeration, another plus in a symphony where the first three movements are marked by a prevailing sense of push-pull that can easily be overdone.

The tragic first movement gives way, amazingly, to a second that is even more turbulent and all but cataclysmic. Here’s an instance where I can understand Mahler’s original audiences being baffled and disoriented. Bernstein and Abbado set out on a wild rise, but Fischer is more self-contained. He relies on his strengths at phrasing, balance, and detail to make their effect here, and they do. One is aware of the intricate busyness of Mahler’s entangled woodwind writing, for example, and the mood evokes unexpected poignancy. Such complete immersion is rare and very welcome.

In decades past, audiences were stunned by Solti’s all-out assault on the Scherzo, with the Chicago brass lifting the roof but at the same time leaving little room for wit and grace. Fischer brings out the dance rhythms and the Viennese sway, almost to the point of schmaltz. He gives the music a swoony, loosey-goosey effect that works. It’s also off the beaten track for him to begin the Adagietto at several dynamic markings louder than the score indicates, creating a mood not of hushed romance or mystery but direct, songful emotion. This is in keeping with the directness of the entire reading.

Then we get to the very tricky finale, where many feel a letdown in Mahler’s inspiration. Even in the best of hands this movement feels impersonal, cluttered with counterpoint and noodling that has no emotional core. Quite a number of recordings get by on virtuosic woodwind and brass playing (Rattle and the Berliners on EMI, for example). Fischer doesn’t try very hard to dress up the music but plays it in a straight-ahead fashion that isn’t quite enough to convince me – it’s the only weak part of an otherwise superb, totally engrossing performance.