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Iván Fischer’s rendition of Mahler’s First demonstrates just how beautifully the Budapest Festival Orchestra can play the piece.

This is the most gorgeously sonorous version of the symphony I’ve heard since Maurice Abravanel’s with the Utah Symphony. Fischer gives us velvety violins (divided left and right), warm and mellow winds, and glowing brass. But there is much more to Fischer’s Mahler First than a romp for the orchestra. This is a perceptive and unique interpretation, to which I have listened six times yet feel that I am just scratching the surface. Wagner casts a long shadow over this account of the first movement. The opening is richly evocative of a forest scene, with distant calls of hunters in the trumpets. The horns here echo another nature vista, namely the opening of Das Rheingold . Fischer’s tempo for the main section appears based on rendering the tune, taken from Songs of a Wayfarer , singable. This way the melody doesn’t drag and perhaps is a little faster than we’re accustomed to hearing in recent years. Fischer phrases the tune, in all its appearances, with mellifluousness instead of earthiness. The transitions in this movement bear a resemblance to Siegfried Idyll , while the concluding passage has a tincture of Siegfried’s Rhine Journey . Has Mahler here, in a proto-Straussian way, made himself the hero of his own symphony?

In the second movement, Fischer shapes the tune in the A section like a drinking song with very basic harmony. Indeed the tune resembles the moment in act III, scene 2 of Götterdämmerung when Siegfried sings, “Drink, Gunther, drink! Your brother offers it to you!” The B section of the movement is filled with delightful insinuations and hesitations. Fischer makes the return of the A section almost breathless in its joy. The uncredited double bassist who opens the third movement plays quietly and in a spectral manner, casting a shadow over the whole A section. Fischer gives the klezmer episodes a deliciously offhand touch, as if the band has performed this music endlessly. According to Fischer’s comments, the B section is a Schubert Lied, perhaps a memory of Lindenbaum.

The wildness at the start of the last movement echoes the same moment in Beethoven’s Ninth. Fischer makes the B section quietly romantic, basing his interpretation perhaps on the similarities to the Blumine movement Mahler omitted. When the work’s concluding theme is introduced, it leads to a passage that, in its savage harmonies, might have influenced Schoenberg. Forest colors preface a return of the B section’s theme, transfigured first quietly then loudly. The final return of the concluding theme is stately and resonant, as if all nature were speaking. Thus ends a strikingly individual Mahler First. The sound engineering on the CD layer is full and balanced, but a little misty. I was not able to listen to the SACD layer. The recordings of this symphony that I find the most convincing, and the most Mahlerian, are those by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony, and Colin Davis and the Bavarian Radio Symphony. I would describe Fischer’s version, along with the Abravanel I mentioned earlier, as perceptive and warmly engaging, if perhaps not completely distilling the Mahlerian ethos. Yet, as Artur Schnabel said, there is music greater than any possible performance of it, and as such a work I welcome this Mahler First in the guise of Iván Fischer’s splendid reevaluation.

Dave Saemann