Mahler 6th with Fischer 

available at Tower Records
G. Mahler, Symphony No. 6, I. Fischer / BFO
The ticker has barely come in with news of Iván Fischer's appointment as Principal Guest Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, when Fischer issues the first Mahler recording of his career. It almost feels as though Fischer is flirting with me. Doesn't he know that nothing makes me so gentle like a lamb and weak in the knees as does good Mahler? Ten years studying, preparing and playing Mahler finally led him to the courage to record the Austrian giant's sixth symphony - Mahler's harshest one in many ways... but also one that, once you are acquainted with it, is an endless source of delight. It comes close on the heels of Abbado's live 6th with the Berlin Philharmonic, and it is only natural to compare the two. Additionally, I ran it against other modern versions: Pierre Boulez (DG), Charles Mackerras (BBC Music Magazine disc 251), Benjamin Zander (Telarc), and Mariss Jansons (LSO live). Just to remind myself what it is not I also blew the dust off Barbirolli (EMI Rouge et Noire / EMI double forte), Karajan (DG Originals), Mitropoulos (EMI Great Conductors of the Century), and Kubelik (DG), most of which I wrote about in my Abbado review.

Mitropoulos 5918:5111:4014:3029:3874:42
Barbirolli 6721:1413:53 (*)15:5132:4383:53
Kubelik 6921:0711:4114:3926:3774:16
Karajan 7422:0913:1617:0330:0082:54
Boulez 9423:0612:1914:4729:1079:22
Zander 0125:2712:2916:2331:5986:18
Mackerras 0218:3612:01*14:1030:0274:52
Jansons 0223:0112:55*15:1330:4381:52
Abbado 0422:4812:43*13:5729:4479:13
Fischer 0522:2312:52*13:4329:2378:49

The timings put Fischer close to Abbado's most recent - and the recordings have been said to be alike. There is certainly some truth to that... both are more or less 'well-behaved' readings that don't overdo the dark and brooding nature of this symphony. Both take the Andante first and neither include the "Essen-Version" third hammer-blow. Both are smooth and superbly executed. The Channel recording has a distinct advantage on the sound (in both, regular or SACD version -- the acoustic of the Budapest National Concert Hall, opened in March of 2005, makes this the best-sounding Fischer recording on Channel Classics) and in emotional vibrancy, too. I find Fischer more charged, taut... slightly less patrician, less floating. The latter two qualities can make for some of the greatest Mahler - just not, in my opinion, in the sixth. (The current edition of the American Record Guide takes the Abbado recording to task for that very reason: "This is the most benign and effete Mahler 6 I have have ever heard. I [...] can't imagine one less fiery and energetic than this. For a moment, I wondered if it was a deliberate send-up of the symphony" (Nov/Dec 05). Harsh, but essentially my feelings, too. Abbado's Mahler 6 is too shy, friendly, apologetic. The 6th is better at being nasty and a hyena. It doesn't have to be (Fischer proves that point, and so does Karajan) - but it surely ought not be Nemo, the friendly clown fish.

As always in the sixth, the question as to which inner movement to place first comes up. Should the conductor go with Mahler the Composer's plan of having the Scherzo first, hammering away right after the very similar Allegro... or should he follow Mahler the Conductor, who ultimately placed the Adagio before the Scherzo? The last couple of years conductors seem to have preferred the latter - in years before, conductors almost uniformly placed the Scherzo first. (Barbirolli is the exception - in his EMI recording he decided that the Andante should come first. In the first re-issue (or perhaps already in the orginal) a well-meaning editor reversed the order... perhaps to conform to standard practice. In the latest reissue on the EMI double forte the original sequence has been restored.)

Fischer does not pretend that this is a clear-cut matter. I quote from his comments in the liner notes:
Putting the scientific arguments aside I have been fascinated by the question of what Mahler's doubts felt like when he suddenly abandoned his beautifully constructed original symphonic plan. To relive this experience we took the sixth symphony on a long European tour and changed the order of the middle movements every single concert. In the Scherzo-Andante peformances the transitions from one movement to the next felt wonderful, the whole architecture made sense but I felt a clear unease about the size and weight of the Scherzo after the first movement. In the Andante-Scherzo concerts there was a fantastic balance and variety. I became convinced that Mahler's abrupt decision was a stroke of genius.
I've said before: Who am I to differ with luminary conductors who know more about Mahler than I ever shall. Alas, from my level of understanding I respectfully disagree. The left-right double blow does not concern me much in a symphony that is supposed to be devastating, anyway. In fact, I like it. Nor does the similarity of the Allegro and Scherzo disturb my listening pleasure. And the transitions make much more sense in the original order... listening and reading the symphony, there can be no doubt that it definitely was composed in and for the original order. Performance practices (or compromises) concern me less. The fact that Fischer's shift from Allegro to Andante is less than smooth (not nearly as organic as Mackerras, who chose the same order) does not help his cause, either. (It should be said, though, that this moment is about the only performance-related quibble I have with the CD.)

And then of course there is the issue of two vs. three hammerblows. Fischer feels the following way about it:
Even if Alma Mahler was right and it was Mahler's superstition that made him erase the fatal deathblow from the final version I feel there must have been another reason, too. I am convinced that the muted climax near the end is better. It is less theatrical and with its modest sound it balances beautifully with the final desperate outburst. This great finale is better with two hammer blows.
Again, I disagree. First of all I am not sure if "less theatrical" is really something desireable to aim for in a Mahler symphony... or 'modesty' for that matter. And I simply don't find the third hammerblow cheap or crude... I find it utterly devastating, heart- and neck-breaking. The third hammerblow, striking a few bars later than one would expect, is the death sentence. The 'hero' is felled like a tree. In the version sans hammerblow - with the slightly reduced orchestration around these bars - the hero receives something more akin to a slap on the ass. It may be enough to make him tumble... but it lacks the compelling drama I love in the 6th.

For all these choices, Fischer's 6th is still one of the finest I have heard in quite a while. I don't agree with some of the high praise heaped on Jansons' LSO live recording, which I find distinctly blasé, even unengaging and boring. That, Fischer is never. Boulez, too, isn't unlike Fischer - only that Boulez is meaner, more taut at a few places and his recording is - next to Zander - one of the last to put the Scherzo first. Fischer's strength is that he manages fluidity and a wonderful lyrical approach without emasculating the symphony too much. I find Zander's sixth exceptional - but especially those who complain about an erratic quality and pulled tempi in Zander should find the Fischer to be near ideal. At least on non-high-end systems, the sound of the Fischer is a good deal better than Abbado, because of increased presence and audibility of the soft parts. The Abbado recording may not be bad, despite its low levels... but what is the point if it only sounds impressive on a high-end system that has Wilson Watt Puppies as rear (!) speakers. This is the first recording of any kind in the Palace of Arts in Budapest (which houses the Concert Hall), and it promises many a great sounding recording to come.

Channel Classics CCS SA 22905

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