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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1893-1896)
Gerhild Romberger (alto)
Cantemus Children’s Choir
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
rec. September 2016, Palace of Arts, Budapest
Reviewed as a stereo DXD download from NativeDSD. Also available in DSD64, 128 & 256 (stereo and multi-channel)
Pdf booklet includes sung texts (English and German)

Few albums have been as eagerly awaited as this one, and a quick listen to the first movement suggests it has been worth the wait. That’s a relief, as I’ve not been impressed with much of Iván Fischer’s Mahler thus far. There are two exceptions, and both involve the Fourth Symphony: first was the revelatory BFO SACD (CCSSA26109) and, second, the Concertgebouw video (RCO12102). Both feature soprano Miah Persson as a near-ideal soloist in the child-heaven finale. Watching Fischer on the podium confirmed what I suspected, that he’s very much at ease with this, one of Mahler’s sunniest creations.

There’s formidable competition in the Third, though. Among the frontrunners are: Jascha Horenstein (Unicorn-Kanchana); James Levine (Sony); Klaus Tennstedt (ICA); Claudio Abbado (DG in Vienna and London, Euroarts in Lucerne); Leonard Bernstein (Sony and DG); Michael Gielen (Hänssler); and Bernard Haitink (CSO Resound and BR Klassik). Lorin Maazel’s Third, part of a wildly eccentric box from Signum, is also worth hearing. I’ve chosen Haitink’s BR Klassik recording as my comparative here, not least because he and Fischer share the same alto, Gerhild Romberger. I listened to the 24/48 download of the latter, available from Qobuz.

As I suggested at the outset, a preliminary audition of Fischer’s Mahler 3 was most encouraging. I’m delighted to say that my first impression was the right one. His quietly expansive view of the first movement won’t please those who prefer a darker, more turbulent approach, but I found it strangely illuminating. Tempos and tempo relationships are very well judged – expansive is often a euphemism for sluggish – and the minutely calibrated colours are simply ravishing. Engineers Jared Sacks and Tom Peeters must take some of the credit for this, as the recording is blessed with startling detail and a thrilling sense of presence.

I’ve not been lucky with recordings of this symphony in recent years, so the unfolding loveliness of this performance is cause for celebration. How beguiling those Wunderhorn tunes, and how honestly shaped those simple phrases; indeed, how refreshing his view of this opener as a whole. Not since Levine and Abbado have I heard the closing bars sound so exhilarating. As for the playing – disciplined, weighty and with necessary heft when it matters most – it simply confirms the BFO as one of the world’s truly great ensembles.

As if that weren’t praise enough, the delicate strings at the start of the second movement are a joy to hear, bringing to mind Fischer’s equally transparent way with similar passages in the Fourth. It may seem odd that I used the word ‘honest’ earlier, but such is the unforced, organic nature of this performance – no sudden hiatuses or expressive overloads – that no other description will do. Some may find Fischer a little too plain here, but all I sense is the smile and spontaneity that this music deserves but seldom gets. In turn, that feeds into a series of quiet epiphanies that had me marvelling anew at this epic score. Moreover, Fischer allows the music to move and breathe in a way I’ve rarely encountered, either on record or in the concert hall.

The third movement is as lightly sprung and as effortlessly delivered as one could wish. Timbres are true and there’s plenty of depth and breadth to the soundstage. Remarkably, this level of detail is achieved within a thoroughly believable balance, where everything is proportionate and in its place. I was particularly taken with the sensible dynamics, in which the softest passages – the distant tenor horn, for instance – and the loudest are accommodated without one having to lunge for the volume control. After too many self-consciously hi-fi recordings of late, this one is just perfect.

Predictably perhaps, Romberger’s limpid account of O Mensch is cradled by playing of gossamer lightness. So often the soloist lets the side down, but this one is as refined, secure and deeply felt as any I can recall. She is realistically placed too, and her diction is very clear. It’s not a big voice – Jessye Norman, for Abbado in Vienna, comes to mind – but it’s simple and affecting. The boys are similarly well placed and just as easy to understand. Artless and easeful, one could imagine this is how the music might have sounded in the crucible of Mahler’s mind.

The make or break movement is the final one. Once again, the ineffable loveliness of the playing conquers all. Some may find Fischer a little too hushed – reverential, even – but for me it fits well with the naďve, rather idealised character of this performance as a whole. In that respect, it reminds me of a formative performance of the Third that I attended around 1980, with Antal Doráti and the Royal Philharmonic; that cast the same profound spell as the finale unfolded. Listening to Fischer and the BFO I was back in the front stalls of the Festival Hall, discovering this music all over again.

Like Doráti, Fischer layers the sound in a way that makes the finale seem like a living entity; others – Tennstedt, for instance – steer it like a great galleon, but Fischer is human and intimate; it’s a conversation, after all – originally titled ‘What Love Tells Me’ – and it’s scaled accordingly. No unscripted accelerations here, no redundant gestures; and how heart-piercing those climaxes, so filled with light. Mahlerian apotheoses don’t come much lovelier than this, supported by a recording that’s full and fearless to the very end. Indeed, one is simply overwhelmed at the close – stunned, even – so that any applause, however well deserved, would seem almost like an affront.

After that, moving on to the earthier Haitink is something of a shock. Like John Quinn, I heard the Dutchman’s 2016 Prom with the LSO and found it surprisingly dull, the first movement especially so. That’s less of an issue here, this opener gaunt and more stoical than before. The vivid BR Klassik recording captures that mood very well indeed. By contrast, Fischer may seem a little detached here, his dynamics too restrained, but then that segues neatly with his abstract, rather idealised view of this score. Two very different approaches, but both work well enough.

Haitink sounds more conventional – and that’s not a criticism – but it does mean that there are no surprises in store. In terms of engineering, the recorded balance isn’t as natural as Channel’s – the timps tend to leap out of the mix rather more than they would in the concert hall – but otherwise the sound is good. That matters less when the music-making is so authoritative. As for the Bavarians, they play like angels, but then they are a distinguished Mahler band. Their recent recording of Mahler’s First with Yannick Nézet-Séguin – one of my Recordings of the Year for 2016 – is ample proof of that.

Haitink also brings out more of the first movement’s rougher, more bucolic elements – Levine likewise – and that’s something I do miss with Fischer. Still, his no-nonsense tempi and sense of urgency are to be welcomed. Haitink also relishes Mahler’s reveille moments, and he makes the most of those trumpets and side drums. That is a reminder – if it were needed – that his performance is deeply rooted in the rich soil of German folklore; one doesn’t feel that as much with Fischer, but then he has a very personal – perhaps even controversial – view of this piece, which is anything but ordinary.

Haitink’s second and third movements are attractively done, adding buoyancy to Fischer’s beauty. As before, the Dutchman’s reading seems all too familiar, offering as it does firm outlines and strong contrasts. In the third movement, the Bavarian woodwinds are just delightful – ditto the pizzicato strings – but there’s an affectionate ‘lean’ to Haitink’s phrasing that, after Fischer’s ‘straighter’ response, seems a tad contrived at times. His tenor horn, less recessed than Fischer’s, is a good example of his robust, feet-on-the-ground approach. But if it’s mist and magic you want, then Fischer’s your man.

Romberger sounds every bit as radiant for Haitink as she does for Fischer, and the Bavarians play with a blend of poise and pliancy that’s simply gorgeous. Not as otherworldly as Fischer and the BFO, perhaps, but then that’s not Haitink’s style. Hence, his boys sound much brighter and more animated than Fischer’s refined group. Alas, there’s a trace of spikiness in the treble of the Munich recording that you simply don’t get in the Budapest one. Indeed, the sound of the latter is nothing short of uncanny, a tribute to the Channel team working with familiar forces and in a venue they know so well.

And the final movement? As Haitink demonstrated in his 2011 Concertgebouw Mahler Ninth – part of the RCO box I mentioned earlier – he’s a master of the long-breathed phrase. And so it is here, the players supremely well focused in this live concert. Haitink is more theatrical than Fischer, lingering on the high points of the music’s changing topography, but that is not without its rewards in the long run. And despite his clear-eyed view of this score, the Dutchman is capable of magic too; the trouble is, in the finale at least, it’s just too intermittent, and the spell is too easily broken.

So, two contrasting responses to this great symphony, both of them superbly played, sung and recorded. Indeed, despite one or two caveats BR Klassik’s 24/48 download is very impressive, but Channel’s DXD one is in another league entirely. One notices that especially with voices, Romberger sounding exceptionally full and rounded in her solo. The BFO percussion are also uncommonly well rendered, but then everything about Channel’s recordings speaks of the highest musical and technical values.

You have the Haitink and you’re wondering whether to buy the Fischer; or perhaps you don't really need another Mahler 3, but you're easily tempted. Haitink is unashamedly old-school, as comfortable as a favourite armchair; in that sense, you know exactly what to expect. Fischer, though, is a challenge, inviting listeners to rethink and recalibrate their responses to the piece. Not everyone will be prepared to make the leap, but those who do will be handsomely rewarded.

Without question, the finest instalment in Fischer’s Mahler cycle to date; and what breathtaking sound.

Dan Morgan


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