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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D major (1909-1910)
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
rec. 2013, Palace of Arts, Budapest, Hungary

The end of Iván Fischer’s BFO Mahler cycle draws near with his long-awaited account of the Ninth. I’ve not warmed to earlier instalments in the series, with the exception of his revitalising Fourth, which he reprised for RCO Live two years later (review). That alone makes Fischer a Mahlerian of some significance, although I tend to avoid his print and video interviews for the simple reason that I’m less interested in what conductors say about their work and more in what they do with it. There are notable exceptions though; the always provocative and charismatic Leonard Bernstein springs to mind.

The list of distinguished Mahler Ninths is long; among more recent versions that have impressed me a great deal is Alan Gilbert’s taut, very dramatic account with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic on BIS (review). On a much loftier plane is the veteran Bernard Haitink’s fine contribution to the RCO Live box I mentioned earlier. Then there’s Mark Elder’s recent recording with the Hallé, which garnered high praise from Brian Wilson and Dominy Clements (review). It goes without saying that Channel’s engineering should be out of the top drawer, which is an added bonus in this glorious, multi-faceted repertoire.

Fischer’s Andante comodo is certainly compelling; the unmistakable drear of weltschmerz at the start is well judged and he broadens the music beautifully thereafter. Mahler’s gentler rhythms are nicely handled too, and there’s a certain refulgence to the sound that’s most welcome. That doesn’t diffuse the clarity of Fischer’s reading, though; aided and abetted by his fine orchestra he brings out the loveliest and most disarming details imaginable. What a pity, then, that his tuttis are so overpowering, something that spoilt his Resurrection for me. Some listeners seem to relish such extremes, but I find them unrealistic and, ultimately, rather unpleasant. Not only that, they tend to distort the shape and proportions of the music at hand.

Despite all his insights I sense that Fischer concentrates too much on the moment at the expense of the full hour as it were. For example, in Haitink’s and Gilbert’s hands the symphony’s denouement is discernible at the very start; such integrated conceptions convey Mahler’s thoughts in a single, perfectly pulsed arch. In the second movement Fischer tends to highlight certain elements of the score; for instance he offers a clean, highly articulate response to those delightful Ländler. One could argue that he’s a little too swift here – that’s the way it feels at least – but then he does lift and aerate the music in much the same way he does with the Fourth.

So why is this Ninth so disorienting? Then it struck me: I’m more conscious of the playing than I am of the music itself. In short, this is too much of an interpretation, not the spontaneous, self-revealing performance I was hoping for. I’m always happy to hear a virtuosic band at play – the BFO certainly qualify as such – but not when it’s an end in itself. Fischer goes on to primp and prettify the music, and that blunts the impact of Mahler’s mood swings and sardonic asides. The Rondo-Burleske isn’t without its problems, either. Fischer takes it at quite a lick, flattening essential contrasts in the process; indeed, most of the composer's carefully crafted effects count for precious little at this point.

I suspect Fischer is trying to redefine the ‘Mahler sound’ with his instrumental balances – more light, less weight – but while that works in the easygoing Fourth I’m less sure it suits the grittier Ninth. Alas, it just makes for a performance that lacks amplitude or conviction; not only that, Fischer overburdens the music and overtaxes the ear with his big, brash climaxes. The effect isn’t impressive, it’s just plain vulgar. Some of the blame for this must lie with the recording which, despite its tonal sophistication, is just too extreme for comfort.

Given these mounting caveats I had real fears for Mahler’s lovely, long-breathed Adagio. Interestingly, Fischer aims for a transparency of texture that appears to give the lower strings a much stronger – and more connective - role than usual. Much has been written about the movement’s air of fragmentation, both in terms of tonality and its emotional content. However, the paradox here is that the most convincing approaches to this valedictory finale retain a degree of cohesion – a binding stoicism, if you like – that I simply don’t hear in Fischer’s reading. His agogic pauses are distracting as well, but then this performance is already compromised by unwelcome emphases and underlinings.

I really wanted to like this new Mahler Ninth; indeed, there are some lovely things in it, especially at the start. Trouble is, that’s simply not enough in a seamless and sustained epic such as this. Even the recording disappoints, in SACD stereo at least. The single disc and booklet are contained in one of those ghastly Digipaks which are vulnerable to wear and tear. I do wish labels wouldn’t use them.

Fischer’s Mahler Ninth is overworked and under-characterised; a major misfire.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: Michael Cookson



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