February 2006

Mahler - Symphony No. 6 in a minor
Budapest Festival Orchestra; Ivan Fischer, conductor
Channel CCC SA 22905
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD
Released: 2005

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Mahler - Symphony No. 7 in e minor "Song of the Night"
San Francisco Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
SFS 821936-0009-2
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD
Released: 2005

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

by Rad Bennett

Though the works are different, there are similarities in these recordings. Both pieces are in a minor key, both are written by the same composer, and each is performed by a world-class orchestra led by a highly respected middle-aged conductor. (Thomas is the senior statesman here, having been born in 1944; Fischer’s birth date is 1951.)

But whereas one comes away from the Thomas recording having heard a very good, perhaps great, performance, one remembers the Fischer as an earth-shaking "event."

Thomas has recorded the Mahler Seventh before, and this performance, coming near the end of his projected complete cycle of Mahler symphonies with his San Francisco Symphony, is similar: fleet, lyrical, but not overly dramatic. That is, until the last movement, which is an all-stops-pulled-out, hell-for-leather romp that is undeniably exciting.

This is Fischer’s first Mahler recording with the orchestra he has been preening and prepping since 1983. In his note included in the SACD booklet, he declares the orchestra now ready to record Mahler, and he is right. In fact, it sounds like this enthusiastic, virtuoso ensemble is ready to tackle anything. Fischer’s Mahler is fleet, lyrical, and very dramatic -- exactly what this grim composition needs.

The recordings are both above the norm, but the San Francisco effort sounds a bit thin in comparison to the Hungarian disc. Perhaps this is a function of the hall in which it was recorded, for Fischer’s Channel disc is the first recording to come from Budapest’s new Palace of Arts, with its adjustable acoustic canopy. Channel’s sound is rich, warm, and clear, with awesome presence, yet no distortion. It is a must-have disc, especially if you have SACD multichannel playback capability, and since this long symphony has been contained on a single disc, you might have enough funds to also purchase the Thomas Seventh for that incredible finale.