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Mahler Symphony No 1

Artists: Budapest Festival Orchestra

Venue: Palace of Arts, Budapest

Conductor: Iván Fischer

Producer: Hein Dekker

Engineers: Jared Sacks, Hein Dekker

Dates  of session: September 22-24, 2011

Words: Michael McManus

Walking from my hotel to Budapest’s Palace of Arts in the comforting sun of a balmy autumn morning, I follow in distinguished footsteps. Just two years ago, James Jolly was here, to attend recording sessions by Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra as they set down Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 4 in studio conditions, in this same hall perched by the Danube. That recording project continues to proceed in stately fashion and now it is the turn of the First Symphony.

This conjunction of location and work has considerable historical significance, for it was here in the Hungarian capital that Mahler conducted the Budapest Philharmonic Society in the premiere performance of this symphony, on November 20, 1889. It had been completed five years earlier in Leipzig and it was very different from the work we know today. The now-familiar opening two movements, book-ending the short ‘Blumine’ movement (which was soon excised), made up the first part of a two-part symphonic poem. This tripartite opening section was warmly received but the audience grew restless during the second part’s minor-key references to ’Frére Jacques’ (described on the concert programme as á la pompes funebres)  and the parodic references to a Jewish Klezmer band – and the Sturm und Drang finale was subjected to vocal opposition. The occasion may have had its inauspicious elements but this majorpublic premiere of the first of Mahler’s symphonic canon marked the beginning of his career as a composer as well as conductor, just six months before his 30th birthday. The sum total of the audience on this more private occasion may consist of me and a pair of rather disreputable-looking furry toys but from the off the musicians play as though their lives depend upon it. Fischer and the BFO have played themselves nicely into the piece with eight concert performances on tour. He says he has ‘been living with this symphony for over 30 years’ and tells me proudly that he cannot recall any other orchestra being ‘so well prepared and so aware of every detail of a symphony’. There is certainly no sense of ennui, rather one of fervour, as well as that stunning degree of technical excellence that saw the BF O ascend deservedly into the Gramophone Top Ten Orchestras list, ahead of more vaunted and better fancied competitors.

Fine recordings of the work are legion and almost every Mahlerian ‘usual suspect’ has set down at least one fine account for posterity – Bernstein, Giulini, Walter, Tennstedt, Sold, Maazel, Mackerras – so what induced Ivan Fischer to challenge these titans of the past? The case for the defence is easily made, for music-making of this calibre simply justifies itself. So, too, does the production team of Jared Sacks and Hein Dekker, still banished to their infernal sauna in the basement of this otherwise agreeable and user-friendly building, and doggedly promulgating the highest standards of surround sound on their Channel Classics SACDS.

It is a rarity these days for a leading orchestra to have the necessary time, space and finance to make a genuine studio recording, and it’s a privilege to witness such devoted perfectionism at first hand. Fischer acknowledges the ‘tempting idea that a live recording has advantages, like more special moments or spontaneity’. But he believes a concert is ‘very similar to a theatre performance’ and ‘for the moment’, and therefore characterised by an uncontrolled environment, which can induce a conductor to make unpremeditated and one-off decisions: ‘Because a musician plays something in a certain way, so you react to that… or there is a little noise or someone coughs and you wait a fraction longer… thousands of small things happen in a concert that work for the moment, but wouldn’t be right for multiple listening.. .Many times, a concert was truly great, but listening to the recording of that event is very often disappointing, because the type of excitement which one feels in the hall doesn’t necessarily come back through the microphone.’ In contrast, with a studio recording, ‘the attitude should be like making a movie, which is clearly aimed at a viewer or listener who may enjoy this very well-designed moment more than once’.

At the time of writing I am yet to hear the fully edited version of these sessions but what I can say is that I have never heard the third movement more convincingly played, with the balance between sincere intent, menace and parody so exquisitely caught — and the team could do worse than to issue the uninterrupted, breathtaking play—through of the finale that ended the sessions, without making a single edit. With Ivan Fischer, nothing happens by chance.