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Reviews: Mahler: Symphony No. 6 - Fischer

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Reviews: 7

Site review by Castor November 13, 2005
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Site review by Polly Nomial April 4, 2006
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Review by seth November 28, 2005 (5 of 10 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
The theme of this finely executed 'top layer' performance by Fischer's Budapest forces is swift and light. The clear advantage of the fast speeds is that it allows for dramatic tempo changes; the Scherzo and Finale feature a number of such memorable moments. The light bowing of the strings compliments the fast pace. Besides this, Fischer turns in a fairly routine performance, which is surprising considering his ability to breath new life into similarly over recorded repertoire (such as the Brahms Hungarian Dances and Rachmaninov's Symphony No.2). Fischer's big innovation is reversing the order of the middle-movements, placing the Andante second. I consider this to be a mistake. Since the symphony comes on a single disc, for those that prefer the Scherzo as the second movement, they can simply program it to be played that way. But since Fischer took the time to write about why he switched the order, I'll write about why I think he's wrong (so if you want, skip the next paragraph).

After having performed the symphony on tour where the the inner-movements were reversed every concert, Fischer writes: "In the Scherzo-Andante performances 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." Fischer seems to 'get it', but not quite. I see the symphony as one long march to the death, divided into three parts. The Allegro + Scherzo form part I, the Andante is part II, and Finale part III. My evidence for this interpretation and thus the movement order lies in the way movements begin and end. After 20+ minutes of 'the march,' the Allegro ends in a glorious triumph. But the victory is short lived. The march instantly starts up again in the Scherzo. It's relentless. The "unease" Fischer writes about can be relieved if the Scherzo is played in such a way to highlight how much of a parody of the first movement it is. The most effective way to accomplish this is to play it at the exact same tempo as the Allegro. That way you can hear how it starts out sounding near identical and then is deconstructed. The parody eventually becomes a total mess and fizzles out, which leads into the tranquil Andante, conveniently coming in the middle of the symphony, serving as a breather, a brief moment for reflection and contemplation; a sort of intermezzo like the Adagietto in the 5th symphony. Notice how the timings work out: part I is about 35 minutes and part III is 30, with the Andante in the center. The Finale picks up where the Andante left off. There's a four minute atmospheric introduction to the movement which serves as a transition from the Andante to the return of the march. So as Fischer notes, he's completely blown the architecture of the symphony by switching the order. Furthermore, the transitions, when switched, simply don't work. The change from Andante to Scherzo is particularly awkward. And with the Scherzo next to the Finale, the back end of the symphony becomes bottom heavy -- sort of the problem Fischer claims to have been trying to avoid. Suddenly you have 42+ minutes of the march.

While the sound quality is mostly excellent, it isn't without problems. First, the good. The sound is incredibly spacious with lots of air in between the instruments. This, combined with the way that the sound effortlessly blooms forth from my speakers, Channel Classics has managed to transform my listening room into the Budapest Palace of Arts. The woodwinds sound especially lifelike (as do all the instruments, really). Now for the bad (please note that the following comments are not based off of comparisons with other recordings, but hearing the symphony live in concert, most recently twice in the beginning of Nov '05). Throughout the recording, on and off the timpani sounds muddy and distant. This problem often comes at times when the instrument is spotlighted by Mahler, such as right before the episode with the rute in the finale. Even worse, is that the bass drum is almost inaudible throughout the entire recording. With the bass drum, and in this symphony in particular, you don't really hear it being struck, but rather hear (and feel!) the result of it being struck -- that massive low frequency rumble. (There's nothing quite like hearing this instrument live for the first time.) The finale, for instance, begins with a tap of the bass drum, which produces such a rumble. On this recording you wouldn't even know the instrument was played there (where as the Hanssler engineers perfectly captured how it sounds live for Gielen's recording). Throughout the symphony there are many moments like this (though usually sounding more like a 'punch') that don't come through on this recording. Even the two big whacks of the bass drum in the finale come through thin and weak. My guess is that this is a problem with the hall, which had just been completed when the recording was made. In my experience, a surprising number of halls do a poor job with bass, resulting in these sorts of problems with the timpani and bass drum.

Overall, I can't really recommend this recording unless you're a devotee of Ivan Fischer (like me), or have tons of money to blow. Your cash would be better spent on Gielen's brilliant interpretation of the 6th, where the recorded sound is not only superb, but the timpani, bass drum and other percussion instruments sound exceptionally vivid (and you really should pick up the entire Gielen cycle).

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Review by andrewb March 5, 2006 (3 of 3 found this review helpful)
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Another fine performance from the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Fischer, the key characteristics of this version of Mahler 6 are momentum and warmth. The orchestra may not have the precision of others like the Berlin Philharmonic but they are natural players of Mahler and play with feeling. There are some delicious sounds, particularly in the Andante, but there is none of the excessive lingering that some famous Mahler conductors of today indulge in. With Fischer there is always forward movement, each beautiful phrase being replaced by another before the ear tires of the first. I was reminded of the Mahler recordings of Barbirolli, particularly his famous version of the fifth symphony. This recording of Mahler 6 might also come to be very highly regarded in the years to come, but after only 3 months with this disc it is too soon to say; it is certainly my preferred choice of today.

It is a great advantage having the symphony on one disc, which makes the most of the momentum and ideally displays the architecture between the movements. The Scherzo is placed after the Andante and only two hammer blows are sounded in the finale; Fisher explains his reasoning on these points in a short note in the booklet.

The recording is close and warm but still detailed, one gets the impression of the orchestra being in a confined space, somewhat like one hears at a live performance rather than the crystalline and distant sound that other Mahler studio recordings sometimes show. Occasionally, on multi-channel, one has the feeling that the instruments are almost jostling each other for position. The booklet notes describe the new Palace of Arts in Budapest, the National Concert Hall of which was the recording venue here. It is possible to change the acoustics of this hall for recordings, for example the reverberation time can be varied between 1 and 4 seconds. On this recording there is a sense of an audience being present but it appears to have been recorded non-live with no audience, perhaps the hall acoustic technology was used to give this impression of an audience. The stereo is good but the multi-channel is to be preferred in my view, there is more detail and clarity in the orchestral textures, but I would have liked a little more sense of space and distance.

The Channel Classics web site says that there is no intention to produce a complete cycle of Mahler symphonies but it is planned to release a Mahler 2 later this year, which will be an immediate purchase for me.

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Review by georgeflanagin August 25, 2006 (9 of 9 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
This is a bit long winded. For ADHD readers who want the bottom line: The Andante is special. The Scherzo is satisfying, and the outer movements seem a bit muted. The recording is voiced to direct your attention to the lower instruments, but it is clear and spacious. If you feel like liberating $20, add this disc to your collection. If you want to know why I feel this way, read along.


An amateur's review of any Mahler symphony is a considerable undertaking of questionable contribution to the base of musical knowledge. A review of #6 is particularly tough in the SACD market. A survey of recent Fanfare Magazine articles indicate that this piece of music is a poster child for the high tech recording industry, and the catalog is already well populated with sentimental favorites. At the top of that list is the MTT / SFO recording to which many Americans attach special significance because of its date of recording.

Here we have Ivan Fischer delivering his vision of Mahler in the inaugural recording in the new Palace of the Arts recording hall in Budapest. Fischer points out that although he shares an Austro-Hungarian Jewish background with Mahler, his love of the music is deeper than this similarity.

The considerable merits of this recording are easier to review than is the music, so I will start there.

The balance between direct and reflected sound is, in my opinion, "just right." The hall ambience is involving without being distracting. I'm sure listeners' perceptions of the correctness of the balance may differ, and it is worth noting that my listening room is just about completely dead on the floor and ceiling, with considerable scattering on all the walls. Also, the Quads are rather directional and don't provide much side wall bounce, anyway.

I think of recordings as being "voiced" in the same way we talk about pianos being voiced. I have noticed that if we tell our piano technician to change the voicing of the piano, he is able to do it reliably. Felt, strings, hammers, etc., can be changed. It is still the same piano, but it sounds different. So it is with recordings.

As we at know, Channel Classics likes to voice their recordings so that the weight of lower instruments is up to the live performance. I think we are so un-used to hearing this in our homes that we sometimes perceive this as bass-heaviness, when it is actually quite realistic. This recording is no exception. Low brass? Present in force. Contrabass violins? Gutsy and full.

The recording does not sound muffled or dull. The flutes, high percussion, and violins are clear and present. The perspective is that of a close seat in the main seating area.

About the music ....

Fischer's Andante is a relief, a surprise, and an inspiration. I looked through our stack of Mahler 6 recordings, and the slowest in our collection is Sinopoli/Philharmonia/1987.

Let's take a look at the timings for Fischer, Sinopoli and MTT. The following table is presented in 1st, Scherzo, Andante, Finale order.

Fischer: 22:23 / 12:52 / 13:43 / 29:23
MTT: 24:33 / 14:02 / 17:27 / 31:22
Sinopoli: 25:08 / 13:33 / 19:48 / 34:28

As you can see, the Fischer tempos are faster in all cases. I think of "andante" as having to do with walking, and if Sinopoli were walking, it must have been with a cane. Particularly in the case where this movement is played second, I think the faster pace is desirable.

Fischer's scherzo continues the picked-up pace. It is vibrant and driven. The two middle movements, in whatever order they are played, are some of the most satisfying I have heard.

The outer movements seem a bit subdued to me, and I can't quite pin down whether my response has to do with the tempi or with something else. This is a "no third hammer blow" performance, but the first two come off rather better in my opinion than other reviewers have indicated.

All the orchestral climaxes are loud and uncompressed, and the playback is truly without strain. QUESTION FOR READERS: I have begun to wonder if there is not a subjective expectation of distortion during loud passages, and as home listeners we translate that strain in the sound into an emotional perception of stress in the music?

One option in these days of the Olive CD players is the ability to put together a fantasy performance from several different conductors and orchestras. My preference would be MTT for the opening movement, followed by the Zander Scherzo, Fischer's Andante, and back to Zander for the finale.

Get the disc. Enjoy the sound.

George Kelly Flanagin

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Review by jlaurson October 10, 2007 (7 of 8 found this review helpful)
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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.

Conductor Allegro Scherzo Andante Finale Total
Mitropoulos 59 18:51 11:40 14:30 29:38 74:42
Barbirolli 67 21:14 13:53(*)15:51 32:43 83:53
Kubelik 69 21:07 11:41 14:39 26:37 74:16
Karajan 74 22:09 13:16 17:03 30:00 82:54
Boulez 94 23:06 12:19 14:47 29:10 79:22
Zander 01 25:27 12:29 16:23 31:59 86:18
Mackerras 02 18:36 12:01* 14:10 30:02 74:52
Jansons 02 23:01 12:55* 15:13 30:43 81:52
Abbado 04 22:48 12:43* 13:57 29:44 79:13
Fischer 05 22:23 12:52* 13:43 29:23 78:49

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.

Channel Classics CCS SA 22905


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Review by jeffreybehr January 11, 2011 (5 of 11 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
I've quite enjoyed Ivan's recordings, but this one is not a keeper for me. The 1st and 2nd movements are simply under played, too casual, perhaps better said, not slow enough. I didn't even listen to the 3rd and 4th movements. Ivan seems not to LOVE this work as much as I do and seems to want to be finished with it.

The multichannel recording is OK but rather small sounding. After hearing Zander's casual 3rd and another, I thought I'd never prefer Zander's Mahler to anyone else's, but Zander's 6th is much-more-strongly felt and played and definitely better for me. Still waiting for MTT's 6th.

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