Fischer's New Mahler Symphony 3

The latest installment in Ivan Fischer's near-complete Mahler cycle for Channel Classics, the Symphony No.3 (CCS SA 38817), renders the myriad beauties of this most wondrous of symphonies into an unforgettable experience. No matter what layer you audition on the two-disc hybrid SACD set, or whichever resolution DSD files you download—I listened in DSD128—you will discover the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Cantemus Children's Choir, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, and alto Gerhild Romberger portrayed in stunning sound, with pounding percussion, cutting brass, tinkly triangles, and celestial children's voices laid out before you in a seamless soundstage.

This, however, is anything but another of those "audiophile recordings" that satiates you sonically while leaving you hungry for musical substance. Channel Classics' superb sound is all of a piece with a performance so satisfying that it deserves a place alongside the myriad hallowed interpretations past and present. Fischer, who tends to steer a middle course that has sometimes proven more truthful to the letter rather than to the spirit of the score, has found a way forward that, to these ears, fully honors Mahler's intentions. He understands, on the deepest level, that Mahler has created a journey that begins with his characteristically idiosyncratic, multi-layered vision of nature, and ends in a glorious affirmation of life and faith.

Although Mahler ultimately disowned titles for this quasi-programmatic work, its six movements were originally conceived as "Summer marches in," "What the flowers in the meadow tell me," "What the animals in the forest tell me," "What the night tells me," "What the morning bells tell me," and "What love tells me." Listeners who focus too hard on these subjects—oh, there's the cuckoo, there's the flowers, and here's the night—rather than let the music wash over them will be doing themselves a great disservice. Why try to encapsulate joy, when there is so much joy to be had in this symphony?

That third Symphony comes from a composer for whom, as tragedies began to overwhelm the triumphs in his life, joy became an increasingly transitory and idealized phenomenon makes it even more a creation to be treasured. Besides, if you're being too literal, you'll have a hard time figuring out why the start of "summer marches in" begins with a death march punctuated by cries of alarm. Regardless, the placement of the horns in the soundstage, and their realistic timbre, only increases the profundity of the opening, and renders the first coming of light near-magical.

Mahler isn't painting the Germany Army trampling through the forest toward St. Petersburg, after all, so the fabulous, subsequent outburst that comes before too long (in extended Mahler time) is one of happy triumph. It's hard not to love the happy chirps, the convincing offstage swells, and the Concertmaster's beautiful solo in this 33-minute opening movement. Other conductors may make more of Mahler's wondrous bursts of light, but Fischer's way of avoiding melodrama while articulating every emotional shift left me wanting to listen deeper and deeper.

The second movement may be bit too relaxed, but its pastoral fragrance is captivating nonetheless. Abundant color changes, magic and mystery follow in the third movement, with the deepest of bass thwacks balanced by profound blasts from the brass.

In the fourth movement, which lasts over eight minutes in this version, the mezzo/contralto soloist sings "O Man! Take heed! What says the deep midnight? . . . But all joy seeks eternity, seeks deep, deep eternity!" Although I read, in one review, that Gerhild Romberger has become the "soloist of choice" in contemporary performances of this symphony, I found her voice a little too bright-edged for the profundity this music demands. A brief survey of other recordings finds the lighter-voiced Anne Sofie von Otter (Boulez), the superb Anna Larsson (better for Salonen and Abbado than for Gergiev), and the irreplaceable Kathleen Ferrier (Boult) preferable. Ferrier may be compromised by poor sound—the live performance, from 1947, is rescued from a single set of off-the-air acetates that were discovered in 1981—but the unassailable spiritual depth of her conception and the beauty of her voice emerge intact. You must hear it.

The choral movement is a delight. The children's voices are ideal, and Romberger surprisingly sweet as she lightens her voice for her high notes. Finally comes the 22-minute closing adagio, that great embrace, which under Fischer's guidance emerges as one gorgeous, extended prayer. Its conclusion is tremendous. As, I expect, will be your reaction to this masterful recording of Mahler's masterpiece. Listening without distraction could convince many a skeptic that assembling and fine-tuning a high-end system is, ultimately, a life-giving spiritual pursuit.

trmntr03's picture

I listened to it a few night ago and I thought I was listening to a pops concert and it wasn't the first time I got the similar impression from this guy. This guy is overly overrated.

dalethorn's picture

I love this piece. Or, given the 96 minute length, I should say prodigious musical work. I suspect that some impressions of the performance as "light" are because of the sensitive playing. I'm not a good example of a patient person, but when necessary I can play a single movement at a sitdown and connect them mentally later. More, please.

Edit: Listening again, late night when all is very quiet. I'm impressed by the dynamics and tonality, helped in part by the close perspective, but sonically sharp and clear in any case. If this were any more dynamic or the treble any stronger, I think my ears would catch fire. Still, the playing feels relaxed, even in the first movement. I like that - I don't like it when I get the feeling that the conductor is in a hurry.

Listen Up's picture

I confess I'm not a fan of Mahler. However, reading this review prompted me to pull out the Mahler 3 I do have, and I actually enjoyed it! Thanks JVS!

SteveR1's picture

I have many Mahler 3's - this one is far too soft for a work that should be all angles.
From Gramophone:"The sound, like Iván Fischer’s interpretation, avoids hard edges and apocalyptic excess, leading to a certain loss of peripheral vision."

foxhall's picture

Finally gave this a second listen and I enjoyed it for sure but it is a gentle performance. Channel Classics just keeps getting better in terms of recording quality - really nice.

For me, my tope three are Abbado/Wiener, Salonen/Los Angeles and then Lopez-Cobos/Cincinnati which still take the top spot in my book.