I first discovered the Mahler Fourth over 30 years ago, when I was in high school. I don't remember who the conductor was but the recording was part of a compellation issued by the Readers' Digest. At the time it seemed both enchanting and disturbing, and I'd never been able to hear this piece as "untroubled." Unfortunately, every performance I'd listened to since then tended to favor one emotional pole at the expense of the other: too sunny or too tortured. So, for years, I'd tried a number of "classic," "sleeper," and "what was I thinking?!" performances, none of which satisfied. Then this came out. I had seriously unkind things to say about Ivan Fischer's "Resurrection," but loved his Rachmaninoff Second and so, after reading positive reviews of this recording from both sides of the pond, decided to take a chance and see what he was up to here.
Finally I found the Mahler Fourth of my dreams. With all due respect to others who have had their say on this interpretation, I find nothing emotionally lightweight about it at all. The first movement reminds me of the powdered candy I used to pour from a long paper tube onto my tongue: it seemed intensely sweet at first blush but left the most surprisingly bitter aftertaste. I don't know where that wonderful aftertaste comes from but I think the sound of the orchestra has something to do with it. There's always a special treat to hearing Mahler played by an Eastern European ensemble, with its tart winds, and the Budapest Festival Orchestra here offer a wonderful anodyne to what I hear as the corporate blandness of so many better-known Symphonies and Philharmonics. My ear was constantly arrested by orchestral colors and turns of phrase that seemed different but intuitively "right." Yes, the expression "like hearing the work anew" is in serious need of retirement but I'm going to trot it out one more time because it applies so well here.
I've never heard the scherzo done better. The solo violin sounds more diabolical than in any other version I know and the phrasing is wonderfully pointed. In contrast, the trios, in which Fischer achieves a sense of aching nostalgia, are meltingly beautiful.
If the glockenspiel had been given just a little more presence in its one fast variation in the third movement, Fischer's interpretation would have been, for me, perfect. As it is, it's as near to perfection as I ever hope to find. The opening cello melody and its variations are beautifully inward and profoundly moving and the oboe-led second thematic group leaves a lump in my throat. From there the movement builds effortlessly and inevitably, yet the "Gates of Heaven" episode sounds like the most glorious surprise (the slight acceleration leading into the E major chord is magnificent). Fischer sees this as the real climax of the symphony, playing it as the climax of the first movement magnified, as it were, and in this way he ties together the two "slow-ish" movements (with the scherzo between them), making a proper introduction to the finale.
For three decades I've found the finale the dead spot in this symphony. Not that the movement isn't beautiful, per se, but that it seems a sad anticlimax, especially after the adagio. By not overplaying the third movement ("beautifully inward" and "profoundly moving" do not mean "milked") and taking this finale at a blithe amble, Fischer alone makes it seem an inevitable and perfectly fitting conclusion, and Miah Persson's voice, shorn of any sense of artifice or souped-up "sophistication" is just ideal.
Did I happen to mention that this performance is more rich in portamento than any I know?
This won't be a Mahler Fourth to all tastes, any more than any other is or ever will be, but it's nice to be reminded, every now and again, that some things are worth waiting for.