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Mahler: Symphony No. 5 - Fischer

Mahler: Symphony No. 5 - Fischer

Channel Classics  CCS SA 34213

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Mahler: Symphony No. 5

Budapest Festival Orchestra
Ivan Fischer


"The Fifth is the most Jewish of all Mahler’s symphonies. The first movement takes us to the unmistakable mood of Jewish lamentation, the finale to the childlike vision of messianic joy.

As we know, Mahler converted to Catholicism. Views may differ as to whether his decision was opportunistic or a question of religious conviction. Christianity plays an important part in much of Mahler’s music, though not in this particular work. Perhaps I may take the liberty of referring briefly to my own family. My ancestors(like Mahler’s) were merchants in a small shtetl in the Habsburg Empire. They were observant Jews. My grandfather, three years older than Gustav Mahler, decided to leave this religious lifestyle behind him when he went to study in Vienna. My father and his brothers were brought up without any religious education. They adored Goethe, Mozart, Beethoven and Richard Wagner. One of the four brothers converted to Catholicism when he married a daughter of a converted family. Later, under Nazi occupation, when it seemed for a while that converting might help them avoid deportation, two of my uncles and an aunt became Catholics; the other members of the family did not.

Whether or not these decisions were opportunistic was never discussed in my family. Nobody cared - these were considered unimportant, personal decisions, partly dictated by circumstances. Converts or no converts, nobody practised any religion and everybody adored culture. And they all hummed tunes like those in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony."

Iván Fischer

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Recorded in Budapest September 2012
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Reviews (2)
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Review by John Miller - November 22, 2013

Thanks to the publicity generated by its thematic appearance in Visconti's 1971 film "Death in Venice", the Adagietto of Mahler's Fifth Symphony is by far the most popular single movement by the composer. Yet overall, the Fifth as a symphony is one of the least popular of his nine, sharing this position with the other two middle period members of the canon.

1901-2 was a time of intense emotional events for Mahler, including a near-fatal illness, recovery, then marriage to Alma Maria Schindler, a well-known Viennese socialite and composer of songs in her own right. The Fifth resulted from a decisive step to move on from the Fourth to a fully orchestral symphony. His orchestration called for more players, the span of the work increased from four to five movements and a length of over 70 minutes. His re-discovery of counterpoint as an expressive and colourful rgenerator of musical textures began here, and continued to develop in the rest of the symphonies. Finally, he abandoned the elaborate programme notes attached to the earlier symphonies for a more abstract and eclectic style.

Iván Fischer's approach to the Fifth is neatly summarised in his foreword to the sleeve-notes. "The Fifth is the most Jewish of all Mahler's Symphonies", he asserts. "The first movement takes us to the unmistakable mood of Jewish lamentation, the finale to the child-like vision of messianic joy". He outlines how his Jewish forebears, like Mahler born in the Hapsburg Empire east of Vienna, took on Catholicism without being religious, yet worshipped Culture. "And," he adds "they all hummed tunes like those in Mahler's Fifth". Fischer brings this heritage background into Mahler's Fifth with an intensity and intimacy which has few peers, his vision realised by the magnificent playing of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, with whom he has such a fine rapport.

Fischer's tempi for the five movements of the Fifth will not raise any eyebrows. Under his baton, the orchestra respond with confidence and aplomb, so that each main tempo and its variants sound wholly natural and organic. For the first movement funeral march, Fischer's timing is only a bare 7 seconds slower than Mahler's in his 1905 Welte-Mignon piano roll performance of the movement (recorded on a modern piano in 1985). Fischer follows Mahler in his crisp rhythmic articulation of the funeral march's dotted notes; "like a cortêge" is the composer's instruction, leaving us no doubt as to the movement's motif. Mahler is amazingly orchestral in his piano version, and reveals a great deal of the movement's inner workings, many of which the BPO emulate. A lasting memory of Fischer's reading of this and other movements is the prominence of their lyricism, be it lamenting, calm and tender, dancing and folksy, or ultimately revealing desolation. In this, Fischer is continuing the strong strain of lyricism which so marked his reading of the Fourth Symphony (Mahler: Symphony No. 4 - Fischer).

The BFO's attack on the second movement explodes into another part of Mahler's world. "Violently agitated" is the composer's instruction, and Fischer manages to catch up with, or even overtake Barbirolli's storm of bile with the New Philharmonia (CD). A grotesque parody of the previous movement's march is interrupted by the BPO's splendid woodwind, alternately oily and chattering. They introduce the cello's mellow second subject, which passes to the rest of the strings with a gorgeous but brief climax. Midway through the movement, triumph breaks away from the bitter violence, initiating a series of Wagnerian exultations, which Fischer builds intelligently to the arrival of a soaring broad-spanned chorale-like melody, hinting at the chorale's reappearance right at the end of the symphony. Exultation is quickly blown away by the return of the violent agitation. The depth of the orchestra's expression in this key movement, swaying between total despondence and Fischer's "messianic" joy, is most impressive and moving.

Mahler's third movement signals the abrupt end of funeral rites and a return to consider life in his beloved countryside. In the sunny key of D Major, this is one of the longest Scherzos in his symphonies. Fischer and the BFO horns and woodwind are in their element with a chain of folksy Symphonic Ländler dances, invested with charm and reminiscence and interspersed with recurring bouts of grotesquery, some of which suggest quite drunken musicians! Mahler's contrapuntal genius, linked to his innate feeling for orchestral colour, is demonstrated as rarely before by Channel Classics marvellously transparent and open recording, conveyed with a rare flair and delectable sly humour.

Now to the famous Adagietto, invested with controversy not just from its cinematographic career but from an ongoing controversy between conductors about its speed. Since the composer did not make a piano roll of the 4th movement, we have only "Very Slowly" as his opening tempo mark for guidance. There is clear evidence, however, that Mahler in the first Summer with this wife Alma wrote this as a Love Song (with secret words). Such an emotional message is supported by the rest of the few pages which have an unusual number of temporary speed changes marked, providing rather than inviting a strong 'rubato' in the piece. Conductorial opinions vary, from around 15 mins to less than 9 mins. At 10:41, Fischer is broader than Barbirolli (one of the swiftest at 9:51). He takes the song view with his flowing tempo. His song is passionate to be sure, but a little more self-effacing than the Italian conductor's fervent, more impulsive ardour. The BFO strings, however, are meltingly beautiful en mass, with richly saturated tone, and the harp perfectly balances with them.

Some listeners might be surprised by Fischer's opening of the Rondo finale (amusingly mis-spelled "Ronodo" in the SA-CD layer's text Table of Contents). It is very gentle, feathery-light and bustling, and brings in many reminiscences of Mahler's favourites from the German Wunderhorn songbook. The bassoon, for example, introduces the theme from 'Lob des hohen Verstandes'. This jauntiness persists for some time, but Fischer and the BFO are gradually winding up to the final radiant bars, the return of the first movement chorale. Here the brass sounds magnificent, with a brilliant range of sonorities, and that subtle rhythmic lift which adds so much to the sheer joy being expressed instead of metric emphases. I was a little disappointed that the surprise firework-like take-off and stratospheric bursts of the violins are not quite loud enough in the melee (listen to Barbirolli's last few bars of the Rondo to hear how thrilling this can be). However, Fischer's final chord was perfectly timed and made me want to leap up and join in with a standing ovation.

Channel Classic's recording follows the excellence of their previous Fischer/Mahler issues, and perhaps there is a sense of greater refinement in capture here. The 8 double-basses of the BFO's powerhouse had even more presence than before, and the bass drum too added much to a satisfying foundation to the orchestra. Epic in multichannel mode.

This Mahler's Fifth Symphony sits very well between Fischer's 4th and 6th. Collectors (and many reviewers) might want to add this remarkable 5th to their collection, even with the pile already amassed. Fisher wrote about the strength of Jewishness in this symphony, and he demonstrably uses his own Jewishness to illustrate this. Gripping, uplifting. Buy one.

Copyright © 2013 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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Review by Graham Williams - November 22, 2013

This is the sixth release in the gradual emergence of what may or may not eventually be a complete Mahler cycle from Ivan Fischer and his acclaimed Budapest Festival Orchestra. As many will be aware, Fischer's performances are only recorded by Channel after they have been meticulously prepared and painstakingly refined by these musicians – often in the wake of a series of concert performances across Europe. The superb results, as here, speak for themselves.

In a note included in the booklet accompanying this new SACD recording of Mahler's 5th Symphony, the conductor Ivan Fischer writes: “ The Fifth is the most Jewish of all Mahler's Symphonies. The first movement takes us to the unmistakeable mood of Jewish lamentation, the finale to the childlike vision of messianic joy.”

Your reaction to this performance might well depend on the extent to which you subscribe to Fischer's view. But those devoted to the recordings of this work by Leonard Bernstein, whose accounts are pervaded by his strong belief in the influence of the Jewish diaspora on Mahler's music, will find some similarities in Fischer's approach to this symphony. At 74'12” it is certainly one of the more expansive interpretations committed to disc.

In 2012, a month before they made this recording in their home venue of the Palace of Arts, Budapest, I was fortunate enough to attend Fischer's scrupulous performance of this work given at the Edinburgh International Festival. Whilst admiring the absolute technical assurance of the playing I did get a sense that the achievement of supremely beautiful sound was paramount – any elements of risk taking being of secondary importance. Listening to this recording a number of times over the past month has not changed that view.

Following a magnificently played trumpet fanfare, the opening 'Trauermarsch' proceeds at a controlled pace with the slow march rhythm, punctuated vividly by the quiet clashing cymbals and snare drum. The wild outbursts in this movement and especially in the one that follows seem slightly calculated and controlled rather than spontaneous, but are nevertheless thrilling.

In the Edinburgh performance Fischer brought an understandably nervous-looking Principal Horn to the front of the orchestra to play the obbligato horn part of the Scherzo. This was a practice used by both Willem Mengelberg and the composer after the Symphony's first performance in 1906. More recently it has been adopted by Simon Rattle and Riccardo Chailly on their recordings of the work. The balance on this SACD suggests that Fischer does the same here, and it proves most effective, thanks to the fabulous horn playing to which we are treated.

The 'Adagietto', though leisurely, is in complete accord with the rest of the performance. The conductor's use of portamento seems perfectly judged, and few could fail to be entranced by the sheer beauty and lusciousness of the Budapest strings as captured by Channel's superlative recording.

Thanks to spectacularly virtuoso orchestral playing, the joyously buoyant mood of Mahler's vigorous Rondo-Finale is communicated most successfully by Fischer, who maintains both the movement's momentum and exuberance right to the work's curt final bars.

Channel's 5.0 DSD recording– arguably the best in this series so far – has tremendous depth and sonic impact with the instruments extending way beyond the front speakers . As usual Fischer's seating of the orchestra is one that Mahler would recognize; violins divided left and right with basses at the rear. This yields huge benefits both in the audibility of details lost on lesser recordings and the overall coherence of the sound.

There is a bewildering choice of fine versions of this symphony on SACD, let alone CD, to suit all tastes. This one should be high on anyone's short-list and definitely at the top of that list for those seeking state-of-the art sound quality.

Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2013 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

Performance:

Sonics (Multichannel):

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Comments (1)
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Comment by Luukas - December 29, 2015 (1 of 1)

Magnificent - but quite slow - reading of this emotional symphony. Dynamic range of the multi-channel sound (5.0) is huge; be careful when you turn [the] volume control. Recommended.