18 Sep 2020

Ádám Fischer’s 1991 MahlerFest Kassel ‘Resurrection’ issued for the first time

Amongst an avalanche of new Mahler recordings appearing at the moment (Das Lied von der Erde seems to be the most favoured, with three) this 1991 Mahler Second from the 2nd Kassel MahlerFest is one of the more interesting releases.

The MahlerFest Kassel was intended to be a permanent festival for playing Mahler’s works every two years; in fact, it only ran for three full editions, the last being in 1995, and the Ninth Symphony was never played at all. Conceptually far more modest than the 1995 Amsterdam MahlerFest in its ambitions - although that would achieve in a few weeks what Kassel would fail to do in six years - its Festspielorchester perhaps owes more to another festival, Lucerne.

Under the direction of the Hungarian conductor Ádám Fischer, less well known as a Mahlerian in 1991 than he is today, this orchestra is a kaleidoscope of colour and tone. Perhaps it is because Kassel is one of the centres of gravity in Mahler’s career - a city where he created Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and wrote the early sketches of his First Symphony. Kassel was the first of those German cities - Hamburg and Leipzig would follow - where Mahler’s symphonies would blossom but it would also in its own way be an entirely different kind of city to others in which he lived and worked and the impulses he got from them would be different too. The Festspielorchester is very much a reflection of a Mahlerian sound but not one specific to any one Mahler symphony; it is, however, characteristic of instrumental tone and colour and to different styles of playing. The oboes and clarinets are from the Vienna Philharmonic, the strings from the Dresden Staatskapelle, Czech Philharmonic and Orchestra of the Hungarian State Opera and brass from German orchestras and the Concertgebouw. This is a chameleon orchestra, but how beautiful it sounds. There is a better blend than one might expect - one of the drawbacks of scratch orchestras - and in this case the quality of the playing is remarkably accomplished, something which was not always the case in their performance of Mahler’s First (also just released) from the 1989 festival.

If Kassel was as a ‘City of Mahler’ then there sounded something authentic and raw about this Mahler Second. Almost thirty years later, at the beginning of a new Mahler cycle with the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker, Fischer would bring a different kind of idiomatic flavour to Mahler - not based on the distinctive sound of the orchestra so much but rather on new directions in tempo, fluency and attention to mood and rhythm. Thirty years possibly seems like a journey of Homeric proportions in Mahler’s music and I think there is something tangible about how Fischer had reflected on these symphonies. Fischer has yet to record the Second in Dusseldorf but you can hear in the Third and in Das Lied von der Erde a subtlety, lightness of rubato and sensitivity of execution - especially in the vocal forces - which is sometimes missing in this 1991 ‘Resurrection’.

What you immediately notice at the very opening of this performance is the wonderful quality of the recording, especially on the SACD layer. But what you hear with such clarity also exposes with the spotlight. The strings at the opening of the Allegro maestoso have a massive and weighty depth. There is nothing Viennese - in other words overtly elegant - about the string playing, but you do hear that chocolate-brown depth of tone, the brawny power which is distinctly Hungarian-Czech and East German. The cellos and basses are ravishing if you like to be seduced by that kind of rich embrace; others might find it too overwhelming (I don’t). But what is crystal clear in the orchestra, such as those string lines and the Viennese woodwind, is not always so clear in the chorus. This is one of those performances evidently never planned for a commercial release.

Fischer takes a middle of the road approach to this symphony (if anything, I think his more recent recordings have become slightly faster than the norm when the tendency is to go the other way - something he also shares with his brother, Ivan). A Talich, a Kubelik or an Ancerl would have generated a performance that perhaps had more fire and passion that rippled through its veins - and no matter how beautifully articulated the first movement is, it sometimes lacks drive. Fischer isn’t averse to a touch of rubato here and there; some phrases suddenly pull back, almost as if Fischer is a little uncertain of when the music changes. There is less flow and ebb here; more pedal and break.

The two shorter orchestral movements are of excellent quality though it’s arguable in the Andante that the occasional weight in the strings doesn’t always achieve all the delicacy needed, though this is offset by the gorgeous tone of the instruments. On the other hand, the attention to dynamics is as complex as interwoven lace (2’56 - 3’10) and as you’d expect the Viennese woodwind provide authentic support. The Scherzo, which towards its end echoes the terrifying opening of the apocalyptic final movement, didn’t always recall the sheer horror of the Allegro maestoso that had come before it - and the timpani if they did grip you by the throat let go rather too soon for my taste. Those thundering downbeats should be like markers in the score - points where a sepulchral bassoon should rise from, or a trio of flutes should ascend above gutsy strings.

Fischer might consider himself very fortunate indeed to have had Marilyn Horne as his alto in this performance, especially in Urlicht which is magnificent. Despite being less than a decade away from retirement, the American mezzo is in formidable form. Performed a couple of years after her recording with Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, there is still a freshness to the voice - if you can call a voice which is so big and earthy fresh. Despite the solemnity and reach of this music Horne doesn’t particularly have to strain to size her voice down - diction is exemplary (a hallmark of all Horne performances), and the power comes entirely from Horne’s ability to think around the text. Pathos, intensity and tension surround every phrase here. Even at this late stage of her career, Horne’s voice still had a sumptuous tone and an upper range which barely sounded under pressure. Fischer almost seems inspired by his mezzo - those magnificent strings follow the voice like a penumbra. In many ways it’s profound and a distinct reason to hear this performance.

At 35 minutes (there is no applause in this performance) the final movement is on the slower side. If sometimes a concert of this work flags at the horrific power of those opening few bars, here Fischer unleashes a force from his orchestra which is tremendously exciting. I’m not sure he quite follows it up, however. The inexorable steamroller suddenly comes to a juddering halt when Fischer imposes after the pause off-stage horns and woodwind that are substantially slower than they ought to be and this goes on for almost six long minutes. Only when the great brass fanfare at 7’51, that screech of terror that almost consumes the entire orchestra, does Fischer resume the ferocity that promised so much from the opening bars. The two timpani crescendos, beginning at 9’42, might be amongst the most chilling on any recording of a Mahler Second - captured in such wonderful three-dimensional sound to make it all the more thrilling - and that Fischer then follows it up with playing of such drive from the orchestra only adds to a sense of frustration that the performance seems rather uneven at times.

The first entrance of the chorus - at 20’01 - does suggest a beautiful balance in the upper and lower register voices, even if there is some back echo which is apparent in the digital recording, not to mention some unavoidable static. The soprano Ibolya Verebics, rises like a flame through the mist of the chorus on her first entrance. Certainly not the largest of voices, Verebics has a slight wobble at the top. Horne’s entrance at “O glaube, mein Herze’ is one of those magical moments - but it’s something Horne does so well. Not one of the most balanced of duets, this was as much to do with two voices which didn’t particularly contrast well, and an alto and a soprano who placed quite different interpretations on what they were singing - that is, one who largely did, one who largely didn’t.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin are splendid, singing with unusual precision and clarity of diction. If microphones don’t particularly allow for the chorus and two soloists to merge well it is, I think, because what was probably rather more balanced in Kassel’s main concert hall was never quite designed for a CD. It is not entirely problematic, just a little unforgiving. Elsewhere, the quality of the SACD sound is outstanding.

There are many performances of this symphony, including ones I have owned for decades, which I do not wish to hear again. I think this new recording with Ádám Fischer from Kassel is one I might return to - at least to hear Marilyn Horne and an orchestra, which if not always playing at the finest level, is certainly conceived in an imaginative way and often sounds glorious. There are moments of brilliance here - there are moments which are from that. But I don’t know of any Mahler ‘Resurrection’ which is close to being ideal.

Marc Bridle