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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 7 in E minor (1905)
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
rec. 2015, Palace of Arts, Budapest

This is my second encounter with Iván Fischer’s Mahler cycle. I bought his recording of the Third, inspired by Dan Morgan’s laudatory review. I admired the reading very much and the magnificent playing of the Budapest Festival Orchestra was conveyed in exemplary sound. I was eager, therefore, for a second opportunity to hear Fischer and his orchestra in Mahler. Interestingly, although the aforementioned Third was released nearly two years ago I see that it was set down a full year after the present account of the Seventh, which has been ‘in the can’ for quite some time.

Years ago, when I was discovering Mahler, the Seventh was the symphony that initially caused me the most difficulty. I was unsure about the extrovert finale and I failed to grasp the huge first movement. But I persevered and gradually, through experiencing a number of first-rate performances, I came to see it as one of Mahler’s most daring and inventive scores and to regard that first movement, with which I struggled for quite a time, as magnificent.

The very first recording of the work that I bought – on LP – was Bernard Haitink’s 1969 Philips account with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. By a happy chance, while I was evaluating this Fischer recording Decca reissued, in celebration of Haitink’s 90th birthday, all of his Mahler recordings with the RCO, set down between 1962 and 1975. These come in a box of 12 CDs together with a single Blu-ray Audio disc containing all the recordings (Decca 483 4643). Because I long since abandoned LPs, it’s ages since I heard Haitink’s Seventh so I broke off my work on the Fischer recording to hear it again in its BD-A reincarnation. I must say that in that format the recording sounds very fine and I was struck by how cogent a guide to the symphony Haitink is. By the time I reacquainted myself with the Haitink recording I’d already formed a pretty strong view of the Fischer version and I gave it one more audition after Haitink.

I was interested to note that Haitink is quite a bit slower than Fischer in the opening funeral march-like music of the first movement. His performance of this section also seems somewhat darker in tone. There’s much to be said for Haitink’s approach. I like Fischer’s way, though; he adopts a steady but forward-moving pace and his tenor horn calls out balefully. In this movement Mahler covers a wide musical trajectory and it seems to me that Fischer doesn’t put a foot wrong. The playing of the BFO is superb and so, too, is the recording; in particular I appreciate the excellent perspectives – both left-to-right and front-to-back - that the engineers have achieved. One episode that particularly caught my attention is the extended slow section with its soaring strings and washes of harp sound; this is simply gorgeous in the Fischer performance. One thing that has struck me while listening to Fischer in this symphony is that his unforced attention to detail makes one appreciate how frequently, at least in the first three movements, Mahler self-quotes, weaving in melodic fragments from his previous six symphonies. This first movement is packed with incident and interest and Fischer lays out everything before us with consummate skill. This is a terrific account of the first movement.

The first time I listened to this recording I thought that the recording lit up the music of Nachtmusik I just a bit too much. I’ve now changed my mind about that and I only mention it in case other listeners have a similar initial reaction. I referred to the sense of perspective in the recording. That’s a trait that very much comes into its own in this movement; the echo effects in which this movement abounds are most successfully conveyed. One other detail of the recording is that the cowbells (from 5:14) are ideally balanced. Fischer points the march rhythms very acutely and, indeed, I think that he leads the listener through this music really well, making the movement seamless. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra plays this movement very well on the Haitink recording but I believe the BFO produces an even greater variety of colours.

The central Scherzo is an astonishing piece of musical imagination. The music is really strange and phantasmagorical – it’s rather like a Totentanz. Fischer and his players not only bring out all the detail but also convey the weird spirit of the music. One detail that I relished was the use of portamento by the strings: it’s really in style. The RCO are far less generous with the portamenti on the Haitink set. Indeed, I have to say that, for all I esteem Haitink, he seems too cautious in this movement, especially when compared with Fischer. The Hungarian conductor gives us the wild imagination of Mahler’s writing. His performance is strongly characterised – every accent, every dynamic marking is made to count, not in a pedantic way but so as to bring the music vividly to life. It’s a really exciting performance and I loved it.

After all the gothic strangeness of the Scherzo, what a contrast Mahler offers in Nachtmusik II. The music is warmly affectionate and Fischer responds marvellously to it. There are lots of important solo contributions in this movement and without exception the BFO principals distinguish themselves. In the first movement Mahler introduced a novel timbre, that of the tenor horn. Here he adds two more instruments rarely found in a symphony orchestra – at least, not in those days: mandolin and guitar. Both instruments make their presence gently felt here as part of a performance by the BFO that is delicately pointed.

The Rondo finale opens in a blaze of light. This is an ebullient movement and Fischer ensures that what we hear is a joyous celebration amid what Mahler often makes into a riot of orchestral colour. He handles the various episodes of the Rondo extremely well, both individually and as a collective whole, making the movement cohesive, which is something that eludes some conductors. I found myself swept along as I listened: this is one of the most convincing accounts of this allegedly problematic movement that I can recall hearing. When we reach the last couple of minutes the orchestral panoply, including festive bells, is superbly delivered, making this a glorious culmination of Mahler’s Seventh.

This is a tremendous performance of the Seventh, magnificently played and recorded. It’s one of the best accounts of the symphony that I’ve heard. I believe this is the last instalment of Iván Fischer’s Mahler series: he’s gone out on a very high note indeed.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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