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
James L. Zychowicz