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 Recording of the Week  Mahler from Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra

Mahler's Ninth is one of those works that has drawn speculation about its meaning ever since its premiere. Like Vaughan Williams' Ninth, it's a mature retrospective that seems to step back and survey the composer's career from the peak of the mountain he has climbed, while at the same time exploring new ideas in tonality. In Mahler's case, the near-breakdown of conventional tonality that occurs at some points – the Rondo-Burleske third movement, for example – is perhaps an acknowledgement of the inevitable point towards which Western classical music had been moving ever since Wagner, and which Mahler must surely have realised was the logical outcome of the breaking of mould after musical mould.

Iván Fischer
Iván Fischer

It would be pointless for me to try to re-hash here the debate concerning the place of this symphony in Mahler's thoughts. The great Mahlerian Leonard Bernstein's view (echoing that of Alma Mahler) that it is a work imbued with the awareness of his own mortality, and anticipating his own death as being imminent, certainly has a lot going for it. The musical quotations from Beethoven's Les Adieux sonata, and from Mahler's own previous works (the Third and Fifth symphonies, in particular, as well as the Rückert-Lieder) do seem to point towards a kind of summing-up. Yet after completing the Ninth Mahler began working on the Tenth (which he was never to finish), and by all accounts seemed to be looking towards the future both in his music and in his personal life. Perhaps Michael Kennedy's theory – that the symphony is a musical Requiem for Mahler's daughter Maria – is closer to the truth.

Whatever the philosophical underpinnings of the work, it is undeniably powerful and deeply personal in nature, and Fischer's Budapest musicians respond to its changing moods with the utmost sensitivity. As in their other recordings, the brass playing particularly grabbed me; neither too timid nor too forceful but poised and rich, just as it was in their magnificent Brahms a few months ago. The brass interjections in the first movement, often heard as luridly grotesque and cutting across the music aggressively, here seem in some sense to be part of it – even as they jar its melodiousness.

The Ländler-like second movement – a form particularly beloved of Mahler – is dotted throughout with a cheeky little rising scale motif, first heard in the bassoon. Although the Austrian dance that inspired this movement can often resemble a heavy-treading waltz, the light touch that the Budapest Festival Orchestra adopt works wonders and allows Mahler's orchestration – often quite soloistic – to come to the fore. It also, for me at least, highlighted a parallel with yet another Ninth – the ironic, self-deprecating Ninth of Shostakovich, whose third movement makes similar use of an obsessive snippet that keeps coming back throughout. The debt owed by Shostakovich to Mahler is often talked about, and in this recording for the first time I found myself hearing the connection.

The final Adagio is, perhaps unusually, the emotional core or crux of the symphony. It is in this movement that many listeners have heard Mahler's halting, reluctant farewell to the world – and indeed in the opening melody, a warm hymn-like motif in D flat major, Fischer's rich strings do somehow conjure up a sense of summation, of someone turning towards the final leg of their journey. Despite my skepticism above of the interpretation advanced by Bernstein and Alma Mahler, I have to say that this sensation is very, very difficult to shake off.

I don't know whether I would have said this on a blind listening, but somehow I found I could tell from the orchestral sound that this was Fischer's handiwork. The sound he draws from his players is rich without being heavy, just as it was in his Brahms, and even when the music peters out into inaudibility at the end somehow that richness still seems to be there, which leaves an aftertaste of serenity rather than of exhausted collapse. If you like your Mahler histrionic and overwrought then this may not be the disc for you – but I found it a mature, sensitive performance throughout. Fischer has clearly done his homework and sees the symphony as a large-scale whole rather than as a succession of moments to be milked, and I think the music actually gains from this treatment rather than losing out for a lack of dramatics.

Mahler: Symphony No. 9

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer

Available Format: SACD