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A CHILD'S PARADISE LOST
on 8 September 2010
How much rehearsal time does Ivan Fischer get with his Budapest Festival Orchestra? I raise the question simply because his Mahler recordings show such infinite and loving attention to detail in these, the most detailed of scores.
His Mahler 4 is no exception. The little squeezes of crescendo/decrescendo on small phrases or even single notes are all carefully observed. So, too, the many little caesuras in the score as well as the variety of different emphasis markings - dots, sforzandi, little decrescendo marks. It all helps to characterise every phrase, every theme. His affection for the Mahlerian portamento/glissando, shown in previous recordings, is also here in abundance (though almost always only when marked in the score) and even extends to the voice in the last verse of the final movement.
This is not enough to make a great Mahler conductor, of course. But Fischer shows himself to be just that throughout the work. He always seems to make it sound so natural. The subtleties of tempo variation are a sheer delight. For example, just before the dash for the line at the end of the first movement there are no less than 10 modifications of tempo in as many bars - rit., subito a tempo, accelerando, rit.. molto rit., langsam, another rit., sehr zuruckhaltend (holding back a little), a tempo and poco a poco stringendo. Fischer moulds it all into a moving and naturally flowing whole.
In his essay in the accompanying notes, Fischer talks about the chamber orchestra feel of the whole symphony and of `the lightness of the whole orchestra'. This certainly comes through in the playing. Which is not to say that he eschews the darkness and angst of the piece: this is perhaps a Child's Paradise Lost. At times, especially in the first movement, I was reminded of the darker side of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, which Mahler had conducted at the Vienna Opera the season before he started work on the first three movements of the symphony. It is the scale, not the content, which is smaller than in other Mahler symphonies. And, as befits a chamber group, some of the soloists deserve special mention - the 1st Horn, who plays the many solos and important counterpoints gloriously, and the clarinettist, who captures the perkiness of a Carinthian town band in the second movement to perfection.
Many of the other reviewers have found the final movement something of a let-down. It should be pointed out that this movement was written seven or eight years before the rest of the symphony and was very much the seed from which the rest of the work grew, thematically as well as emotionally. You should perhaps argue that the slow movement, sublime as it is, is a little too weighty for its context. Mahler gave two important instructions in the score at the head of this last movement: `It is of the greatest importance that the singer be extremely discreetly accompanied' and `To be sung with childlike and serene expression, absolutely without parody!' Both these criteria are admirably realised, by Fischer in his accompaniment and by Miah Persson in her singing. As it gently rocks the symphony to its close, one is left (with a tear or two I must admit) reflecting on a great performance, superbly played and wonderfully recorded.