Ivan Fischer and his marvellous Budapest Festival Orchestra have a already given us outstanding recordings of Mahler's 2nd, Mahler: Symphony No. 2 - Fischer 4th, Mahler: Symphony No. 4 - Fischer and 6th Mahler: Symphony No. 6 - Fischer Symphonies in performances that not only show these artists to have supreme grasp of the Mahlerian idiom but also demonstrate Fischer's ability to look at these works anew – no easy task to achieve amongst the ever increasing number of recorded versions of these symphonies that seem to be released (or re-released) by record companies almost every month. The freshness and questing nature of his approach is undeniable and even Mahlerites firmly wedded to accounts by some of the great interpreters of the past should investigate these often revelatory performances.
His latest recording, that of the 1st Symphony, benefits immensely from the magnificent quality of the recorded sound achieved by engineers Jared Sacks and Hein Dekker in what for them has become the familiar and excellent acoustic of the Palace of Arts, Budapest. The opening paragraphs of the symphony clearly illustrate their achievement – really pianissimo sustained string harmonics, bright bird calls in the woodwind, warm horns and off-stage trumpet fanfares are all heard in clear and miraculously balanced perspectives. Fischer's evocation of Mahler's “ like a sound of nature” could not have been better captured by the skill of these sonic magicians.
The first movement is taken at a genial pace that allows appreciation of the immaculate orchestral playing, but as the music darkens (from13'.20”) and the movement's climax is approached Fischer slows the tempo down considerably before building up to a wonderful cathartic release of tension capped by ringing percussion, blazing trumpets and whooping horns. It is a nuance that will, like all such interpretive ideas, please some listeners and annoy others but the exhilaration that it engenders is palpable. The scherzo comes as a really bracing breath of fresh air. Fischer adopts a brisk tempo which, thanks to the clear articulation of the lower strings, gives the movement an exhilarating lift. The central trio section is played with a delightful lightness and affectionate rubato that never becomes mannered. In that respect one is reminded of similar passages heard in this conductor's superlative recording of Mahler's 4th Symphony. Fischer and his players are perfectly attuned to the different moods of vulgarity and serenity expressed in the third movement's canonic funeral march. The Klezmer passages in this movement are handled with humour but without excessive parody and it is a pleasure to hear the cymbal and bass drum reproduced so crisply in these sections as well as the quiet tam-tam strokes elsewhere.
As one might expect from these musicians, the tempestuous finale, with its journey from anguish to triumph, is characterised by breathtaking orchestral playing throughout. The statement of the 'big tune' - three minutes into the finale - begins initially with a restrained simplicity that gradually blossoms into an impassioned climax, while the remainder of the movement proclaims the controlled virtuosity of the Budapest players right through to the symphony's cataclysmic conclusion. Those seeking the histrionics of a Bernstein may be slightly disappointed by Fischer's faithful adherence to what is in the score, but in the final analysis this thrilling performance is one to live with, and one's admiration for what Fischer achieves grows with each subsequent playing of this superb recording.