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The Hungarian conductor/ composer/ opera director Ivan Fischer was one of my musicians-of-the-year

In Budapest, he conducted/ directed the premiere of his opera The Red Heifer, which focused on a 19th-century Hungarian case of “blood libel” (false accusation of Jews of ritual murder of a Gentile child); he intended it as a rebuke against the “growing tolerance for anti-Semitism” he sees in his homeland. In New York, he conducted my favorite opera, Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” and also directed it, in what was apparently the best production in years. And among his 2013 recordings, I’ll give the nod to his new recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Fischer regards the Fifth as the “most Jewish” of Mahler’s symphonies – in the first movement’s funeral march, for example, he hears the lament-music of his ancestors (his grandfather lived in the same kind of Jewish Hapsburg village that Mahler came from, and also moved to Vienna at about the same time). Fischer’s ongoing Mahler cycle has sometimes been criticized for being too clear-eyed – very different from the expressionist Mahler of Leonard Bernstein – but in this symphony I think he and his players have done something special. They think more thoroughly polyphonically than most (that is, the melody is often less dominant while the other lines more “equal”) and the feeling is in some places darker.


iowapublicradio.org, by Barney Sherman