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Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Mahler symphonies cycle has impressed with its lack of histrionics, consistently gorgeous playing and spectacular recorded sound. The First Symphony premiered in Budapest in 1889 and the performance was a disaster. That isn’t the case here; Fischer and company give us one of best recordings of the work currently available.

First thing that catches your attention is the incredible dynamic range of the recording. This is a work that opens with a whisper and closes with a roar and every note is captured with stunning realism. The phrase “demonstration quality sound” is tossed around quite a bit, but this recording is the real deal.

Fischer’s interpretation puts the work in historic context and his Mahler is a kind of folksy, and occasionally neurotic, descendent of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. Fischer’s nuanced view of the work is wed to the gorgeous sound of this brilliant orchestra and results in a rich and compelling performance. This may be one of the most classically perfect Mahler Firsts ever. Yes, there are moments when I would have liked a bit more drama. The third movement Frère Jacques episode doesn’t strike me as eerie as it should be and the klezmer passage that follows isn’t nearly vulgar enough. But the cumulative power of the performance is irresistible. When hell breaks lose in the last movement, Fischer pushes all the right buttons and the movement unfolds with a harrowing intensity that makes the ecstatic conclusion all the more thrilling.

Fischer speaks of the failure of the First Symphony at its Budapest premiere. He says, “Since then, at each performance I feel that we Hungarians have a moral duty to convince audiences that this is a perfect and exceptionally beautiful masterpiece.” We now know the Mahler First is a masterpiece, but Fischer and his superb orchestra reinforce the point. This is stunning on every level.

by Craig Zeichner