At this point in the history of Mahler interpretations, there's not much point to yet another recording unless the conductor has a fresh point of view. In his previous Mahler recordings, Ivan Fischer has been credited with just that - his freshness wakes up the ear, we are told. Not mine. Despite vivid sonics, his Budapest orchestra is lightweight and underpowered for the big symphonies, unless you prefer Mahler brought down in scale. I'll grant, though, that something catches the attention in each movement of this new Mahler First.
In the opening movement, the first 5 min. occur in a dream; the forest awakens softly and slowly, with the woodwinds coming close to imitating the twang of their Czech cousins in Prague. But the almost total absence of tension becomes monotonous, and although it is interesting to build this movement along the lines of several extended crescendos, the execution isn't mesmerizing enough in practice. The second movement is better, and with such a strong background in dances by Dvorak and Liszt, Fischer achieves rhythmic liveliness without stomping the ground in wooden clogs. The outer sections are fast and flashy with loud horns, the Trio slow and sleepy.
The fashion today is to play the third movement in broad strokes of caricature, exaggerating the klezmer-band episode to Borscht Belt dimensions. Fischer carries off the opening quite nicely - one can see imaginatively the procession of forest animals acting as a cortege for a fallen hunter, which was the movement's witty inspiration. I like the use of a very soft, buzzy double bass soloist. I don't think Mahler wanted this parody of a Marche funebre to sound urbane. The klezmer music is jolly and easy-going. In all, the delicacy and sly wit of this movement stand out - Fischer really is fresh and ear-opening here.
In concert the finale is a tour de force in the hands of a great orchestra, with thrilling, thunderous peaks and swooning romantic melodies in between. On records, however, it runs into the limitations of home audio. For once, I envied anyone with a honker SACD system. Channel Classics does a superb job, even in two-channel stereo, clarifying the textures and damping down the bombardment of sound. Fischer aids the engineers with a reading that is fast, alert, and not an assault. His orchestra couldn't imitate the Chicago Sym., so it's good that they aren't asked to. It's odd that Fischer finds energy to spare in this movement when the first movement contained listless stretches. The contrasting lyrical sections are handled very sensitively, a hallmark of this conductor. But the tension flags at the end, and the overwhelming effect intended by Mahler is somewhat dampened.
The Mahler First, when all is said and done, comes close to playing itself, and there are few recordings, in my experience, that qualify as great - Bruno Walter and the NY Phil. in excellent mono sound (Sony), Rafael Kubelik either in the studio (DG) or in concert (Audite), perhaps Bernstein's second recording (DG). A sizable number of recordings are very good, even the unexpected Boulez, who isn't exactly known for his bucolic touch. Tennstedt made several tries, but for me his best is not on EMI, his home label, but on the London Phil's house label, a posthumous concert release. One can throw a rock and hit a good Mahler First recording. This one, for all its differences, doesn't quite gel.