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Mahler: Symphony no. 6 in A Minor
16 May 2006

MAHLER: Symphony no. 6

In recent years the Sixth Symphony of Gustav Mahler has gained some prominence with the declaration by the internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft about the only correct order of the internal movements, a position that has inspired some discussion among enthusiasts.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 6 in A Minor

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer, conductor.

Channel Classics CCS 22998 [CD]

$16.99  Click to buy

To release a recording of this work now almost requires that the Andante precede the Scherzo. While this is the way the composer himself performed the work and also the order in which Mahler saw the revised edition of the Symphony into print, the work has been also performed and recorded for decades with the inner movements in the other order.

Without dwelling on editorial issues, it is indeed difficult to dispute the authority of the composer’s own choices for performance. However, it remains for succeeding generations to deal with the editorial decision made by Erwin Ratz, the editor of the first critical edition of the Sixth, who returned the inner movements to the original order. More importantly, his edition influenced at least a generation of conductors. Thus, the discography of Mahler’s music includes some fine performances that follow the critical edition of in having those inner movements reversed. Jascha Horenstein’s recording of the work with the Stockholm Philharmonic is one of those performances earlier of the earlier version of the score, and it still comes up in various comparative assessments of recordings.

Other performances aside, the present recording of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony by the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Ivan Fischer offers a fine reading of the work. It is a creditable performance by this ensemble, which Fischer has shaped in the mold of other festival orchestras, like the famed one in Lucerne, Switzerland. The liner notes include some comments about Fischer’s rehearsal techniques with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and his emphasis on chamber-music ensemble textures. Such an approach should be useful for works like Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, in which the composer used various smaller groupings of instruments within the larger structure of a four-movement symphony.

Fischer’s reading of the first movement is intense for its relentless pace, which fits the music well. This approach certainly keeps the ensemble tight, but it also lacks the shape that occurs in some other conductors, where the phrases stretch, and short pauses offer cues to the audience to apprehend the structure of the music. Those kinds of nuances are welcome, but certainly not part of the notated score, to which Fischer adheres faithfully.

Likewise, the second movement, the Andante moderato, is paced well, but it is ensemble, rather than tempo that is crucial for this piece. At times, some of the winds seem a bit overbalanced, as oboe passages soar out uncharacteristically from some of the supporting string textures. In fact, the winds are, perhaps, a bit richer sounding than might occur in an actual performance. This is not to detract from this performance, but rather the way it was preserved in this recording. It is a minor point, but the balance seems off when the cowbells enter, later in the movement, giving the impression of being, perhaps closer, than the effect the Mahler wanted of suggested sounds in the distance in a more evocative than direct sense. A similar directness may be found at the conclusion of the movement, where entire orchestra seems to be recorded perhaps a bit closely, with some of the sonorities seeming closer to the speakers than might occur in a live performance.

With such a presentation in place, there is no question about the direct opening of the Scherzo, which opens unequivocally. In his extroverted approach to this movement, it is possible hear some thematic connections with the Seventh Symphony that result from the balance of sonorities that Fischer brings to this movement. After the opening, the textures thin as if to offer a sense of release, and this approach to timbre allows the nuances of the Scherzo to emerge. While the brass can be quite forward in the middle of the Scherzo, they strings often match them in intensity. As much as commentators quibble about the success of various conductors’ interpretations of this movement, the approach Fischer has taken sounds convincing.

Likewise, the Finale of this cyclic work offers challenges in concert that are successfully overcome in a studio recording like this one. To convey the structure of this complex movement requires the sensitivity to thematic connections, as Fischer has done. At times the string textures are, perhaps, less resonant than found with other orchestras, but the ear can compensate for that weakness. What emerges is a well-connected rendering of the movement in which the various thematic linkages relate to each other while they also evoke ideas from other movements. Fischer presents a vivid concept of the Finale, which is one of Mahler’s more complex structures.

It is difficult to think of a single recording of this work that overshadows the rest, but those who appreciate the work will find some insights in Fischer’s interpretation. Again, his sound is generally forward, and those who want to find their concert experiences reproduced on recordings may be disappointed with sometimes unrealistic balances. Nevertheless, the ear can accommodate those moments where the trumpet might be a bit too prominent or the overly percussive entrance of the low strings. At the same time, this allows the conductor to capture the drama of the work in this recording, which Fischer maintains throughout the final measures in the incredibly intense code with which Mahler ended this magnificent work.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

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