Mahler Symphony No. 1 from Iván Fischer
Perhaps I’m getting cynical in my old age, but whenever I hear about the release of a new Mahler symphony recording, I always feel excited and somewhat sceptical in equal measures. Excitement because I love Mahler’s music, and so any excuse to listen to the symphonies again is eagerly pounced upon, and scepticism because, with so many cycles having been issued fairly recently by conductors such as Gergiev, Zinman, and Tilson Thomas, the curmudgeonly part of me wonders: is another recording really necessary? Happily, when it involves Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the answer is a resounding yes!
Out next week is their new disc of Mahler’s First Symphony, joining their previous releases of the Second, Fourth, and Sixth. Something I appreciated very much with the earlier instalments was Fischer’s ear for balance, and attention to the smallest details of orchestration, always so crucial in Mahler. The same is true with this performance: for example, all of the bravura counterpoint from the strings in the last movement, so often swamped underneath an egregiously stentorian brass section, is perfectly audible here, without any of the necessary weight or brilliance being sacrificed.
There’s a wonderfully Hungarian character to the sound in a lot of places, especially in the woodwind and brass. I particularly enjoyed the section in the third movement just after the opening statements of a minor-key Frère Jacques (or Bruder Martin, as Mahler would most likely have known it), where tart oboes and unctuous trumpets lead into a passage that supposedly represents a village band. By bringing to the fore touches such as the cheeky, Klezmer-like clarinets, the oompah of the bass drum and cymbals, and exaggerated violin glissandos, Fischer succeeds in creating that rustic, unrefined feel more than most recordings I’ve heard.
I think the main thing that sets this apart as not just yet another recording of Mahler 1 was the pacing; in places this is extremely steady. The most obvious place where this occurs is in the slow build-up to the climax of the first movement: while the whole point of this section is of course to ratchet up the tension more and more, finally exploding in a brass-capped blaze of glory, I’ve never heard it drawn out to anywhere near this extent before. Fischer really makes you wait for it, and it’s certainly very effective: by the end of it you’re so desperate for some kind of release that when that cadence finally arrives, with its boisterous trombones and rollicking horns, it’s truly cathartic indeed!
It’s not all stately, though: the last movement motors along with a great deal of energy, and as I mentioned earlier, all of the fiendish string writing is very much present, with no loss of heft from the brass. Similarly, Fischer doesn’t over-Romanticise the tender, string-dominated passages; they’re definitely not thrown away or rushed through, but equally he refuses to over-indulge and let them get in the way of the overall direction of the movement. There are a few other idiosyncrasies of phrasing here and there: in particular Fischer employs quite a lot of rubato in the Trio section of the second movement, especially on up-beats. Some may think it too fussy, but I have to say that I was pleased to hear a fresh approach to this material.
All in all, then, a very interesting take on perhaps the most familiar of Mahler’s symphonies. Some of Fischer’s decisions are bound to irritate just as many people as they delight, but in any case, when the results are as exciting as this, I’d suggest it’s definitely worth hearing.