When orchestral musicians miss a note or botch an entrance, it's called a "mistake". When conductors screw up, it's called (as likely as not) "interpretation". While it helps to have first-hand experience of podium misfeasance, astute listeners often can tell when the conductor controls the orchestra, and when he's basically out of his depth. The fact is, podium incompetence isn't nearly as rare as you might think. So when I say that there is no better-conducted recording of Mahler's Fourth Symphony available than this one, it's in this very special context. True, there are a couple of things about it that strike me as less than ideal, particularly the recessed percussion--soft suspended cymbals and triangle in the first movement and finale, for example, and a tam-tam that certainly could be more terrifying in its single fortissimo whack. But Ivan Fischer's achievement is so extraordinary, and the results he achieves so unique, that these few quibbles fade into insignificance.
Let me give you one very detailed example. The third subject of the first movement's exposition (that chirping little tune for oboe over clockwork bassoon) is a conductorial minefield. Most performances only approximate what Mahler requires. It begins "molto meno mosso", becomes "somewhat more flowing" leading to a "Luftpause", followed by "Wieder gemächlich" ("leisurely again"). All of this takes place within 10 bars. Fischer doesn't just manage this test of idiomatic Mahlerian style perfectly: he does it in a way that sounds natural, fresh, and inevitable. The orchestra follows him every step of the way, always characterful, charming, and humorously easy-going.
Fischer's achievement extends beyond tiny details to his larger conception. The second subject is indeed "broadly sung", but not markedly slower than the preceding "Frisch" tempo. This allows Fischer the opportunity to really relax into the exposition's cadence theme, "again very restful and somewhat holding back." This is clearly slower than the "broadly sung" second subject, but in many performances the tempos sound almost exactly the same. Not here. And while some might take exception, the sleigh bells are indeed marked pianissimo to the flutes' piano at the symphony's opening. Fischer's observance of dynamics is as telling as his handling of tempo and transitions.
Hopefully, given these observations you now know what to expect: a scherzo with a tangy, aptly whiny solo violin and lusciously mellow trio sections. An adagio perfectly timed: about 22 minutes, with gorgeous string playing, ideally judged "accelerating" variations, and a whopper of a climax at the end. The finale, with Miah Persson one of the best sopranos to take the role since Reri Grist (Bernstein), could only be considered quick by those used to today's increasingly droopy tempos. Fischer and Persson capture the music's innocence with unforgettable sweetness and joy. And they understand that the little joke that Mahler plays at the symphony's very end works best when still presented in lively fashion: "everything awakes to joy," the solo sings, just as the music does the opposite: it goes to sleep in dreamy contentment.
You certainly won't go to sleep listening to this extraordinary, warmly engineered performance, but the contentment you will feel at its end is surely the stuff of dreams. --David Hurwitz