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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 Titan
Festspielorchester des Gustav Mahler Fest Kassel/Adam Fischer
rec. live, 8 July 1989, Kassel Town Hall, Kassel, Germany

It must be hard for many, readers and reviewers alike, to keep pace with the seemingly unstoppable flow of Mahler releases – I had to stop to pause for a moment when this release arrived, to just configure which Fischer this Mahler First was from. After all, there is Ivan’s version with the Budapest Festival Orchestra on Channel Classics, Thierry’s with the Utah SO on Reference Recordings, as well as Adam’s with the Dusseldorf on Avi, which coincidentally won BBC Music Magazine’s Orchestral Recording of the Year for 2019. Ivan and Adam are also brothers (Thierry is unrelated, I think) and it is the same Adam who is conducting on this release on ARS, in what is presumably his first recording before the aforementioned award-winning Dusseldorf account.

I have to be honest that I did not exactly rush to review this release when it first arrived, as a live recording from 1989, released at full-price on SACD, with a pick-up orchestra under a conductor perhaps not of huge star-quality (particularly in 1989), all lasting an eyebrow-raising 58 minutes, did not really tick any of my “must hear” boxes. To give you a sense of orientation with the timing, selecting three classic recordings, Walter with the Columbia Symphony lasts some 52 minutes, Solti with the London SO on Decca is 54 minutes, whilst Bernstein and the Concertgebouw on DG take just over 56 minutes. Even Adam’s Dusseldorf re-recording from 2018 lasts a little over 53 minutes, so this release didn’t look very promising. However, I was in for a pleasant surprise…

As the CD notes (in both English and German) explain, this particular recording captures concerts given on 8 July 1989 at what was the first of three Mahler Festivals held in the German city of Kassel, which the keen Mahler students amongst you will remember was the city where this composer worked between 1883 and 1885. The fact that it was not a particularly happy or successful time in Mahler’s life does not seem to have put anyone off establishing a festival there, for which the initial conducting duties fell to Adam Fischer and Manfred Honeck, until the idea eventually fizzled out with a final festival in 1995. The orchestra for these festivals was made up of many instrumentalists from central European bands, including the Vienna and Czech Philharmonics, as well as the Dresden Staatskapelle, amongst others and the concerts all took place in the main concert hall of Kassel which, as captured on this recording, seems to carry some noticeable reverberation, that lends a nice bloom to the sound. Indeed, I was hugely impressed with the results obtained by the engineers and reproduced on this SACD, which nicely combined detail, as well as exciting impact when the orchestra is in full cry.

Although this is supposed to be a recording derived from two live performances on the same day, the presence of reverberation and no applause right at the end, leads me to wonder if some splicing was perhaps taken from the dress rehearsal, even though the orchestra does occasionally sound tired towards the end of the final movement and their intonation is not entirely faultless. Still, they play with considerable commitment and enthusiasm.

The performance itself is not, as I expected, a Celibidachian, Zen-like-slow-motion examination of the score as the total timing may have suggested – actually, much of It is conventionally paced with all the thrills ‘n spills of Mahler’s work despatched with much aplomb, panache and considerable excitement, helped (no doubt) with it all being live. In fact, it is only in three sections of the score where the reading really piles on the minutes, the first of which occurs in the second movement’s trio. After this movement has opened with a conventionally paced and spiritedly played Ländler, Fischer then plays the central trio very slowly and in doing so, considerably alters the character of the music, making it more haunted and wistful than usual – certainly, it is very beautifully played by the orchestra with much inward concentration and whilst I’m not sure Mahler was actually looking for quite such a level of intensity at this point in the symphony, I suppose it is a valid view-point.

Likewise, the long lyrical sections of the last movement are also delivered extremely slowly, very hushed, almost in the manner of the opening of the final movement of the Third Symphony. Most remarkable of all though is the third movement; here, the listener encounters Mahler juxtaposing the ridiculous with the sublime, taking a children’s rhyme of Frère Jacques (or rather the German equivalent, Bruder Jakob, which Mahler mistakenly names Bruder Martin) before introducing music that evokes a klezmer band, which then segues into the final song of The Wayfarer, where Mahler’s weary traveller contemplates eternal sleep under the linden tree. Mahler’s original notes for the work describes this movement as depicting a hunter’s funeral, the cortege winding its way through the forest followed by all the woodland creatures and Fischer’s interpretation here, especially with its daringly slow treatment of the music after a sombrely beautiful double-bass solo has introduced the Bruder Jakob canon, evokes more the stark beauty of a funeral mass, rather than a darkly humorous funeral procession - I have to say that I have heard many Mahler Firsts in my time, but none quite like this. Being objective, I am sure the composer had in mind something cruder, perhaps even schmaltzier than the more rarefied atmosphere that Fischer and his players evoke here, but there is no doubting the originality of the conductor’s vision, something he did not repeat with the later, more conventional remake with the Dusseldorf Symphony Orchestra (review). As I said at the beginning, I was surprised by just how good, original and daring this reading actually is and if the originality of Fischer’s vision perhaps means this account cannot ever be a central recommendation of the work, there is no doubt in my mind that many veteran Mahlerians will be pleasantly surprised, as I was, at just how thought-provoking and enjoyable this recording turns out to be.

In summary, then, this is a highly distinctive and individual reading in very good sound, the sum of which perhaps just falls short of only the very finest accounts. My worry is that the high price of this release could put off some inquisitive purchasers, which in my view would be a shame, for this reading is far more interesting and involving than this conductor’s more conventional, better played and award-winning remake from Düsseldorf – and that’s no mean accolade.

Lee Denham

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