Top Ear

Fischer’s Mahler 5: Lyrical or Languid?

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Jeremy Lee writes

Heaven knows how many Mahler 5ths there are on disc, but of those I’ve heard so far, and despite some stylistic and tonal differences between performances, most are geared towards a fundamentally extrovert approach:  high on excitement, high on intensity, high on power, or high on angst.  Fischer’s Mahler 5th does not take such an approach, but is it a good thing?

In essence, this is a predominantly lyrical Mahler 5th, one that stresses on melodic linearity rather than rhythmic gusto.  Tempi are often toward the slow side (the Scherzo clocks at 19:40), but it never feels slow or sleepy–quite paradoxically, the whole performance just flows.  Maybe it’s the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s amazingly clear and flexible playing that has to be heard to believed:  the strings manage to attain the magic combination of tonal plushness and textural opulence.  This can be heard particularly in the Adagietto, where that utterly malleable string tone coupled with some breathtakingly unanimous phrasing makes for an awe-inspiring listening experience.  Meanwhile, the winds (both wood and brass) bear an impressively warm and matte sonority and are mostly kept unobtrusively in the background (sometimes to the detriment of the performance itself–more later).  Or maybe it’s Fischer’s authoritative grasp of the larger symphonic architecture:  his rubato is impeccably organic, his transitions smooth and never obtrusive.  Either way, the performance bears an effortless fluid and liquid quality to it, as if it was conceived in a single breath.  Or, if I may put it this way, this is a performance that you would want to conduct in one.

Yet there are quite a number of characteristics of this performance that, while serving Fischer’s warmly lyrical view of the music, seem to work against what Mahler had originally intended.  Chief of which is the complete, and I mean complete, lack of physicality.  There are numerous examples of this:  the central episode of the funeral march is utterly devoid of its usual explosive excitement, while the strings that launch the second movement are certainly not “Stürmisch bewegt, mit Größter Vehemenz”; the passage marked Wuchtig just before the brass chorale in the second movement, most performances let the lower brass rip and peal like wounded animals, while here, the string melody is allowed to dominate, with the brass held squarely in check; the brass chorales, while meticulously balanced against the strings, rarely speak of any majesty or elation.  To some, this non-physicality adds an extra dimension of intimacy and gentleness to the music, while to others, it’s tepid and anticlimactic.  Personally, I tend to the latter view:  there’s no reason why we couldn’t have both intimate lyricism AND some visceral playing when needed.  That was what made Barbirolli’s recording so special:  warm, unforced, singing, yet packing quite a lot of punch in places that matter.  Fischer just doesn’t, and as a result, Mahler’s intention of a symphonic universe–the encompassment of everything in a single symphony–is lost in a squarely one-dimensional view of the music.  You may say that yet another paradox surfaces:  Fischer imposes his unobtrusive interpretation onto the music, to the point that it obtrudes with the many dimensions Mahler embedded in the music.

Despite this, when all is said and done, this is objectively an accomplished Mahler 5th.  Fischer has of course successfully managed to impose his unique if debatable view onto the music, and his Budapest players deliver almost perfect playing (with the exception of the strangely flub-filled trumpet section).  Channel Classics’ sound is of typical excellence, yet slightly murky this time round.  This won’t be a Mahler 5th to convince everyone or to suit all tastes, but for what it is, it’s pretty special.


  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No. 5
  • Performers:  Ivan Fischer (conductor);  Budapest Festival Orchestra
  • Label:  Channel Classics CCS SA 34213
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  74:12

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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