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Fischer’s Mahler 6th

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No. 6,
I.Fischer / BFO
Channel Classics SACD

The ticker has barely come in with news of Iván Fischer‘s appointment as Principal Guest Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, when Fischer issues the first Mahler recording of his career. It almost feels as though Fischer is flirting with me. Doesn’t he know that nothing makes me so gentle like a lamb and weak in the knees as does good Mahler? Ten years studying, preparing and playing Mahler finally led him to the courage to record the Austrian giant’s sixth symphony - Mahler’s harshest one in many ways... but also one that, once you are acquainted with it, is an endless source of delight. It comes close on the heels of Abbado’s live 6th with the Berlin Philharmonic, and it is only natural to compare the two. Additionally, I ran it against other modern versions: Pierre Boulez (DG), Charles Mackerras (BBC Music Magazine disc 251), Benjamin Zander (Telarc), and Mariss Jansons (LSO live). Just to remind myself what it is not I also blew the dust off Barbirolli (EMI Rouge et Noire / EMI double forte), Karajan (DG Originals), Mitropoulos (EMI Great Conductors of the Century), and Kubelik (DG), most of which I wrote about in my Abbado review.

Mitropoulos 5918:5111:4014:3029:3874:42
Barbirolli 6721:1413:53 (*)15:5132:4383:53
Kubelik 6921:0711:4114:3926:3774:16
Karajan 7422:0913:1617:0330:0082:54
Boulez 9423:0612:1914:4729:1079:22
Zander 0125:2712:2916:2331:5986:18
Mackerras 0218:3612:01*14:1030:0274:52
Jansons 0223:0112:55*15:1330:4381:52
Abbado 0422:4812:43*13:5729:4479:13
Fischer 0522:2312:52*13:4329:2378:49

The timings put Fischer close to Abbado’s most recent - and the recordings have been said to be alike. There is certainly some truth to that… both are more or less ‘well-behaved’ readings that don’t overdo the dark and brooding nature of this symphony. Both take the Andante first and neither include the "Essen-Version" third hammer-blow. Both are smooth and superbly executed. The Channel recording has a distinct advantage on the sound (in both, regular or SACD version—the acoustic of the Budapest National Concert Hall, opened in March of 2005, makes this the best-sounding Fischer recording on Channel Classics) and in emotional vibrancy, too. I find Fischer more charged, taut... slightly less patrician, less floating. The latter two qualities can make for some of the greatest Mahler - just not, in my opinion, in the sixth. (The current edition of the American Record Guide takes the Abbado recording to task for that very reason: "This is the most benign and effete Mahler 6 I have have ever heard. I [...] can’t imagine one less fiery and energetic than this. For a moment, I wondered if it was a deliberate send-up of the symphony" (Nov/Dec 05). Harsh, but essentially my feelings, too. Abbado’s Mahler 6 is too shy, friendly, apologetic. The 6th is better at being nasty and a hyena. It doesn’t have to be (Fischer proves that point, and so does Karajan) - but it surely ought not be Nemo, the friendly clown fish.

As always in the sixth, the question as to which inner movement to place first comes up. Should the conductor go with Mahler the Composer’s plan of having the Scherzo first, hammering away right after the very similar Allegro... or should he follow Mahler the Conductor, who ultimately placed the Adagio before the Scherzo? The last couple of years conductors seem to have preferred the latter - in years before, conductors almost uniformly placed the Scherzo first. (Barbirolli is the exception - in his EMI recording he decided that the Andante should come first. In the first re-issue (or perhaps already in the orginal) a well-meaning editor reversed the order... perhaps to conform to standard practice. In the latest reissue on the EMI double forte the original sequence has been restored.)

Fischer does not pretend that this is a clear-cut matter. I quote from his comments in the liner notes:
Putting the scientific arguments aside I have been fascinated by the question of what Mahler’s doubts felt like when he suddenly abandoned his beautifully constructed original symphonic plan. To relive this experience we took the sixth symphony on a long European tour and changed the order of the middle movements every single concert. In the Scherzo-Andante peformances the transitions from one movement to the next felt wonderful, the whole architecture made sense but I felt a clear unease about the size and weight of the Scherzo after the first movement. In the Andante-Scherzo concerts there was a fantastic balance and variety. I became convinced that Mahler’s abrupt decision was a stroke of genius.
I’ve said before: Who am I to differ with luminary conductors who know more about Mahler than I ever shall. Alas, from my level of understanding I respectfully disagree. The left-right double blow does not concern me much in a symphony that is supposed to be devastating, anyway. In fact, I like it. Nor does the similarity of the Allegro and Scherzo disturb my listening pleasure. And the transitions make much more sense in the original order... listening and reading the symphony, there can be no doubt that it definitely was composed in and for the original order. Performance practices (or compromises) concern me less. The fact that Fischer’s shift from Allegro to Andante is less than smooth (not nearly as organic as Mackerras, who chose the same order) does not help his cause, either. (It should be said, though, that this moment is about the only performance-related quibble I have with the CD.)

And then of course there is the issue of two vs. three hammerblows. Fischer feels the following way about it:
Even if Alma Mahler was right and it was Mahler’s superstition that made him erase the fatal deathblow from the final version I feel there must have been another reason, too. I am convinced that the muted climax near the end is better. It is less theatrical and with its modest sound it balances beautifully with the final desperate outburst. This great finale is better with two hammer blows.
Again, I disagree. First of all I am not sure if "less theatrical" is really something desireable to aim for in a Mahler symphony... or ‘modesty’ for that matter. And I simply don’t find the third hammerblow cheap or crude... I find it utterly devastating, heart- and neck-breaking. The third hammerblow, striking a few bars later than one would expect, is the death sentence. The ‘hero’ is felled like a tree. In the version sans hammerblow - with the slightly reduced orchestration around these bars - the hero receives something more akin to a slap on the ass. It may be enough to make him tumble... but it lacks the compelling drama I love in the 6th.

For all these choices, Fischer’s 6th is still one of the finest I have heard in quite a while. I don’t agree with some of the high praise heaped on Jansons’ LSO live recording, which I find distinctly blasé, even unengaging and boring. That, Fischer is never. Boulez, too, isn’t unlike Fischer - only that Boulez is meaner, more taut at a few places and his recording is - next to Zander - one of the last to put the Scherzo first. Fischer’s strength is that he manages fluidity and a wonderful lyrical approach without emasculating the symphony too much. I find Zander’s sixth exceptional - but especially those who complain about an erratic quality and pulled tempi in Zander should find the Fischer to be near ideal. At least on non-high-end systems, the sound of the Fischer is a good deal better than Abbado, because of increased presence and audibility of the soft parts. The Abbado recording may not be bad, despite its low levels... but what is the point if it only sounds impressive on a high-end system that has Wilson Watt Puppies as rear (!) speakers. This is the first recording of any kind in the Palace of Arts in Budapest (which houses the Concert Hall), and it promises many a great sounding recording to come.

An ionarts interview with Fischer Iván, in which he talks about Mahler, can be found here.

Channel Classics CCS SA 22905


Anonymous said...

Sir you are correct on the preferred order of middle movements AS HEARD and well supported by Henri Louis de la Grange in the Vienna, 1904-07 Volume of his Mahler Biography, pp 813-814. About the hammerblows he is somewhat noncommittal but his analysis of the drafts of the Sixth seem to support two blows not three, and there is no doubt that in Essen the performance toned down the hammerblows with each successive blow, clearly the kind of impact Mahler wished. Nonetheless the dramatic impact of the third cannot be gainsaid and it would be foolish to be dogmatic.

Rune Eggpoe

jfl said...

rune eggpoe -- like the recently deceased poet?? i thought i had HLdlG on my side as concerns the hammerblows... but i have not yet found his mahler biography in german and yet to read this just about definitive and seminal work. there are some who say that the recomposed section with the emasculated hammerblow is more intricate and allows the work to breath better... but perhaps i am a sucker for spectacle and effect. after all, i like classical music for the (cheap) emotional thrills it gives me. and dramatacially, i guess, you really don't need all that might to fell a hero that has barely scrambled to get back up on his feet a second time... your point stands unassailable: no reason to be dogmatic - just reason to revel in ones own subjective enjoyment. clearly it doesn't take a third hammerblow to make for a great 6th - as this delight of a recording proves.


jfl said...

errata corrige: i _thought_ i had HLdlG on my side as regards the movement order... i had not been sure about his take on the hammerblows.

Anonymous said...

JFL de la Grange is rather ambiguous but makes clear Mahler planned 5 blows at first and the cut to two at end makes most sense for structure; and a DIMINISHED impact in the third blow was always in the plan of the movement.

Rune Eggpoe

ps you may have confusion with late Poet & journalist Lerrie Eggpoe

Anonymous said...

I have not heard this particular recording, but wanted to comment on the general issue of performance controversy for the 6th. I think it's fair to say that Mahler's final intent is very clear: Andante-Scherzo, two hammerblows. Despite unsubstantiated claims from Walter and others as to Mahler changing his mind, there is no evidence for this. During his lifetime, as we know, the work was never performed any other way.

That being said, I find that in actual performance practice, Mahler shouldn't have second-guessed himself. Scherzo-Andate is much more compelling IMO, both because of the key relationships and because of the impact of having the aching beauty of the Andante precede the catastrophe of the Finale. I also believe that, when executed correctly, three hammerblows are preferred. Unfortunately, I've yet to hear a 3-blow recording wherein they were handled totally convincingly. I think the NYP Bernstein comes pretty close, except that the thud of the hammer is not distinct from that of a bass drum, which may in fact be exactly what is used. Solti blunders by making the first blow weak, the 2nd inaudible and the 3rd startlingly loud.

For all the hooplah, I think one of the worst aspects of Zander's recording is the hammerblows. Sure, they're big and distinct, but too much so. They stand out garishly, heightening the sense that they are a cheap theatrical "GOTCHA!" tool rather than being integrated into the music. And what happened to the cymbal and tam-tam crash for the second hammer blow? If they're there, they are inaudible. And David Hurwitz has written extensively on Zander's blooper with the 3rd hammerblow (as well as his other errors, which are numerous).

Sadly, despite wanting 3 great hammerblows, the best hammerblows I've heard all seem to be in the performances that have just two. Particularly MTT's recording with the San Francisco Symphony--those are two damned mighty hammerblows, but whatever is making the big thud is very well integrated with the orchestra. The impact of the 2nd blow is hair-raising, despite it being less loud than the first. Abbado's blows are also spectacular, but I have many qualms about the rest of the performance that make them not totally worth the effort.

I guess my point is that, for me, the ideal hammerblows--be they 2 or 3--are not theatrical and garish, but at the same time have an enormous impact. It's a tricky balance, but necessary to really convey Mahler's meaning, IMO. It's obvious they are important, or he wouldn't have put them in (which is why I find Boulez's choice to entirely eliminate the hammer sound reprehensible). But they shouldn't be as all-consumingly important like Zander makes them out to be. That does indeed cheapen the music.

jfl said...

"I think it's fair to say that Mahler's final intent is very clear: Andante-Scherzo, two hammerblows. Despite unsubstantiated claims from Walter and others as to Mahler changing his mind, there is no evidence for this. During his lifetime, as we know, the work was never performed any other way."

I disagree with that to the extend that I think that a performer's compromise, doubts and superstitiousness don't necessarily overrule the composer's intent - even if they were one and the same person.

But that is a mute point since we agree wholeheartedly on Scherzo-Andante issue and in theory on the Hammerblow issue... even if you have not heard it to your Platonic-ideal-liking in performance. I have yet to read Hurwitz' statements on the Zander 6th. I used to disagree much and even dislike the ponderous opinions of Hurwitz - but lately I've found myself much in agreement with him. It seems I've come around. (Or has he? :) )

Have you heard the Mackerras recording (w/3 blows)? I think we could make a Truffault-like suspense thriller out of this issue: "The Three Blows"

Thanks for the insightful and detailed comments.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply, jfl.

"I disagree with that to the extend that I think that a performer's compromise, doubts and superstitiousness don't necessarily overrule the composer's intent - even if they were one and the same person."

I'm not sure I follow you here. If you're saying that Mahler might have been "mistaken" in his final choice, I certainly agree (as I said). But I don't see how we can possibly believe, except through pure conjecture, that Mahler's final version wasn't his final intent. He presumably would have had every power to change it back to what he intended if that's what he wanted to do.

As I said, there is no evidence that Mahler made his revisions to the 6th out of a spirit of compromise or superstition. Indeed, given his history of revising works, it was completely in line with his actions on previous symphonies (though perhaps more drastic). He revised numerous aspects of the score for the 6th at the same time he deleted the 3rd blow and reversed the inner movements. If we're to believe he was revising out of compromise or superstition, why is there no argument over these other alterations? Keep in mind that the first draft of the finale actually had *five* hammerblows. If removing the third was merely superstition, what about the two others he also edited out?

The hammerblow superstition argument makes a nice story, but I think really it's just a made-up justification for including the third hammerblow and pretending Mahler would have wanted it that way. It's unnecessary, though, since it's accepted performance practice now to include it or not, so no such justifications are needed, other than the particular idea the conductor has for his interpretation.

I also disagree with Hurwitz a lot when it comes to tastes, but I mentioned his article on Zander because it's not a review of a performance, but rather a factual dissection of Zander's claims about the music and his performance. For an example of when Hurwitz is egregiously wrong, see his review of the Brahms 4th by Bernstein on DG. It's blasphemy. :)

I will try to find the Mackerras recording you mentioned. I have to admit to not being a big fan of his in general, but I'll give anything a shot on a recommendation.

Thanks for reading, and best regards.

jfl said...

Did you ever find the Mackerras recording? FWIW: I agree even more with what you write than I did then.