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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor Resurrection (1888-94) [82:18]
Lisa Milne (soprano)
Birgit Remmert (mezzo)
The Hungarian Radio Choir
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Ivan Fischer
rec. Palace of Arts, Budapest, September 2005. DDD
CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS SA 23506 [31:50 + 50:28]


This is Ivan Fischerís second Mahler symphony for Channel Classics with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, his first being the Sixth recorded in February 2005. His opening to this Resurrection symphony, its heroís Funeral Rites, is disciplined with touches of brusqueness in the brass. But as this is supposed to ask ĎWhy did you live?í Iím very aware of Fischerís empathy for the visionary aspects of the movement, as if to answer ĎTo experience all thatís lovelyí.

That vision starts with the second theme (tr. 1 2:16). The funeral march, first heard at 0:54, returns to respond Ďletís get on with ití but the oboes at 4:46 take its opening and linger emotively, pleadingly, obsessively and here very evocatively. The second theme returns at 5:27 in wonderfully veiled ppp, surround sound here conveying a vast spaciousness. At this point comes a pastoral interlude, those oboes at 6:14 becalmed with their same material, a total change of mood in less than 2 minutes. But itís the first violins who expand on it at 6:45 in gentle, gorgeously lapping fashion.

The heroic material is presented by turns as a bitter and triumphant lot but not worth as much as the visionary, when in the recapitulation those emotive descending phrases come from 17:22 in tastefully controlled violinsí glissandi. Fischer also gets across the subversive, questioning elements to the Spartan formality of the ritual.

The symphony is presented on two SACDs and I suppose for technical reasons the split comes after the second movement rather than, as some CDs put it, after the first, nodding towards Mahlerís wish for at least five minutesí pause before the second movement. No mention is made of this in the booklet notes and here you get just twelve seconds break!

The time lapse is intended to create some distance for what Mahler called the second movementís Ďecho of long past days when the sun still smiled oní the hero. Fischer presents us with a graceful, gentle Ländler, the Austrian slower precursor of the waltz. Not too slow, but delighting in the formal emphases and embellishments within the presentation. This is about a civilized society. Fischer really gets into it by the slightest of leanings from time to time, such as at the accent at the beginning of the cellosí elaboration (tr. 2 0:42). At 3:02 a fuller cellosí theme emerges which the violinsí opening one accompanies. This is of utter contentment, Fischerís cellos finely controlled yet singing from the heart, with growing yearning and tasteful glissandi from 3:59.

Is placing the opening theme on pizzicato violins from 7:04 taking make believe too far? It still sounds gorgeous here. Before the dance becomes totally a Tchaikovsky one, however, from 7:54 the first violins expand upon the cellosí theme in sunnier, airier fashion. Again Fischer momentarily lingers on a descending semiquaver at 8:12, a nuance hardly strong enough to calibrate, but you can feel it.

The third movement scherzo proves a reality check with opening timpani claps a wake-up call. Experience sours: things donít work out as hoped. This is a purely orchestral, expanded version of Mahlerís Das knaben Wunderhorn song Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt about Saint Anthony preaching to the fish, who appreciate the sermon but then carry on as before. The booklet note with these CDs omits this significant information. Fischerís creatures are of a nonchalant slippery nature, though an E flat clarinet solo (CD 2, tr. 1 1:00) shows there are some more raucous elements. The song tune starts at 1:16 and thereís another, homelier tune at 2:07. Might St Anthony think allís going well as the trumpets blaze at 3:59 and even better when they go into a balmy haze at 5:01? False optimism. Thereís a hint of terror come the returning trumpets blaze at 8:31 because of the recordingís clarity of the additional scoring, especially the pair of tam-tams. This is confirmed by the pairs of trumpet calls answering each other as if at the Last Judgment. At 8:55 the chasm opens and although sanity is restored by the homely tune in the first violins the fissures remain. At the very end the harps ff bass gurgle is as graphic as Iíve ever heard. Iíd take it for the belch of a whale.

All the more contrast then in the fourth movementís actual song, Primal Light, that with which, its climax affirms, God will guide you to eternal life. Smoothness and stillness are the predominant impressions of the opening, with mezzo Birgit Remmert warm but also finely controlled in tone and so well matched by the wind chorale that follows her opening. Her lovely smooth octave lift at Ďim Himmelí, the vision of Heaven (tr. 2 1:35) ensures a mood of serenity and approaching fulfilment. The following oboe solo is also beautifully done. The central narrative is fittingly alert and the orchestration eventful: a piccolo for each angel wing at 3:03. At the very end thereís more emotion and vibrato in Remmertís voice but that in itself is a touching reminder of its humanity.

Itís Fischerís beatific calm following the apocalyptic opening of the finale that next fixes the attention. The distant horn through which Mahler portrays Ďthe crier in the wildernessí (tr. 3 1:51) is only the first of many colourful aspects of orchestral texture relished and detailed in the greater degree of distancing and spaciousness possible in surround sound. Themes later to be more markedly displayed enter unpretentiously: the Dies irae at 3:18, a probing trombone march at 3:47. But not the theme at 5:36, revealed in the mezzo solo ĎO glaubeí at 26:58 as being about personal belief in resurrection. At its first appearance on flutes and cor anglais Fischer gives it real urgency with strings writhing around it in a growing sense of panic. As a contrast at 7:50 we get a galaxy of brass fanfares which glow like the sum of the hopes of human potential. By 10:45, when the manner has now become that of a popular march which Fischer treats briskly and firmly, you feel all human life is there in what is a March of the Dead to Judgement.

But by 18:08 the human element has almost vanished to yield to the most memorable of the spatial effects. A horn echo at the recesses of your hearing against nearby, smooth and soft, brightly presented bird calls. The chorus enters at 20:33, delivering the Resurrection hymn with words by Klopstock in warmly veiled manner yet also with a keen sense of progression, a message to convey. You feel it immediately transfers to the confidence of the orchestral projection thereafter. The soprano soloist, Lisa Milne, overlays the close of the chorus statements smoothly yet, like Remmert, with humane vibrato. The mezzo solo begins the greater part of the hymnís text, written by Mahler. The choral version at 28:20 of the trombone theme affirms the resurrection, fulfilled at 31:50 in the great cry of ĎAuferstehíní, ĎYou will riseí, where the chorus here creates a surge of electricity.

I compared the 1993 live Berlin Philharmonic/Bernard Haitink recording as it has recently been reissued on DVD in surround sound (Philips 074 3131). For exact comparison I played it in surround sound only, without video.

Here are the comparative timings






















Although Haitink is slightly slower in the opening movement, what I find notable about his account is the contrast he achieves between the regimentation of the march and formal rites music and the freedom of the second theme in its appearances, especially the recapitulation where the glissandi swoon more. His introduction is more menacing because a touch more brusquely articulated and the first full orchestra display of force is more garish than Fischerís. You also notice more the appearance and progress of the motifs. The very clear, quite analytical Philips Philharmonie sound isnít as glowing or spacious as Channel Classics capturing of the Budapest Palace of Arts acoustic.

Fischer gets a greater density of sound but his articulation in the introduction is less biting than Haitinkís. However, Fischerís march has something of manic glee about it. His second theme, though not as free as Haitinkís, is given poised treatment and the more rapt hush about its second appearance (5:27) is a particular pleasure. Its recapitulation is beautifully presented and the glissandi are very stylish, more voluptuous in total effect than Haitinkís, perhaps owing to the greater density of tone.

Haitinkís steadier second movement gains in relaxation. Thereís more control and sweetness about the cellosí theme accompanied in more silky, feathery fashion by the violins while his pizzicato later is more formal and sounds more natural thereby. Fischerís dance is firmer, less delicate, but with a youthful smile and warmth about it and even a hint of swagger in the marked accents. His cellosí theme has a more gentle warmth and the violinsí melody has more presence. His pizzicato is fuller bodied.

Haitinkís slightly faster scherzo has an appreciably seamless disquiet about it. You feel thereís always something dramatic likely to happen. Even those trumpets lolling at ease seem to be on the verge of something else. The chasm, when it opens, is the answer rather than, with Fischer, a surprise. The sweet violins thereafter seem clipped and ironic.

Fischer conveys a sense of changeability in those swimming fish semiquaver contours and a dourly jolly mood of Ďweíll keep going and make the best of ití. The trumpets at ease provide a misty eyed idyll, vainly attempting to arrest time. His sweet violins more purely yearn for what has been.

Haitinkís slightly slower Primal Light has a sustained warm stateliness with Jard van Nes a smooth, dignified contralto soloist backed by rather plush, velvety comforting strings. However, the oboe soloistís fastidious phrasing has a somewhat halting effect and the central section is less contrasted than Fischerís. I prefer Fischerís very soft early brass chorale, closer to Mahlerís markings and more humble and prayerful. In Birgit Remmertís delivery there seems less certainty of outcome than with van Nes, which gives the articulation of the text more vibrancy. Thereís more beguiling continuity about the oboe solo and the strings, which are muted and always marked softer than the voice, have a more veiled quality and are clearly subordinate.

Haitinkís finale is mightily unleashed and his following calm is like defining the soul of melody. But his horn in the wilderness is rather a blazing one. The movementís progress is measured and coherent, yet with Haitink too the first appearance of the ĎO glaubeí theme provokes a writhing response, more frenetic than Fischerís. His brass fanfares and stringsí attack are more dazzling than Fischerís. His popular march is sturdy yet with a sense of culmination and indeed excitement, the clarity of strings against brass a key ingredient in this. However, the distant brass are too strong against the foreground bird calls. The chorus opening is very measured and contemplative, without Fischerís sense of progression. The soprano solos from Sylvia McNair steal in firmly and glowingly with a sense of fulfilment. ĎAuferstehíní, with the entrance of the organ very clear, is as electric as Fischerís.

In Fischerís finale I like his creamier calm contrast after the explosive opening and his emphasis on detailing the building blocks of the movement. I also like his scrupulous dynamic control and contrast, probably impossible in a live performance. But Fischerís approach seems one of keen exploration rather than Haitinkís of things coming to a head. Fischerís fanfares arenít as exciting as Haitinkís and his structurally clear popular march misses the exultation and even fun of Haitinkís. Fischer might retort a March to Judgement should at least have some element of doggedness about it. What is striking is the injection of radiance into the orchestral response that follows the first chorus statement.

Time to sum up. The cover photo is appropriate. Fischer ponders over the detail, keenly appreciative. Finely crafted and superbly recorded, this yields some wonderful results in the second and fourth movements especially. Thereís great range and contrast but also a comparative lack of natural spontaneity which makes the overall impact of the finale less moving than Haitinkís.

Michael Greenhalgh


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