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mahler symphony7 petrenko BSOREC0001
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Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No 7 in E minor, 'Song of the Night’
Bayerisches Staatsorchester/Kirill Petrenko
rec. live, 28-29 May 2018, Herkulessaal, Munich

A glance at the discography of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony on the Mahler Foundation’s website shows there to be over 140 recordings of the work, whether in the studio or live, either official releases or those from the pirates - and let me say from the outset, that this release is a most distinguished entry to that list, if not, perhaps, amongst the very best. It is, in fact, the first release from the Bavarian State Orchestra’s own label. They are an ambitious ensemble with a most illustrious history and are, of course, also the pit orchestra at the Bavarian State Opera. The roll call of previous directors is quite astonishing, from Richard Strauss, Bruno Walter, Hans Knappertsbusch, Clemens Krauss, Georg Solti, Rudolf Kempe, Ferenc Fricsay, Joseph Keilberth, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Zubin Mehta and Kent Nagano, all the way through to Kirill Petrenko who was Music Director at the time of this recording, before leaving for the Berlin Philharmonic and being replaced by Vladimir Jurowski in 2021. Ask anyone in Munich, too, and they will tell you that the Bavarian State Orchestra was also the ensemble Carlos Kleiber most chose to work with, in “official” recordings of La Traviata and Die Fledermaus, as well as Dvorak’s Piano Concerto taped with them too. Their sound on this recording is warm and burnished and seems, to my ears, to be closer to that of Barenboim’s Berlin Staatskapelle, rather than the grander sounding Berlin Philharmonic, or the more luminous Bavarian Radio State Orchestra and their playing for Petrenko in this composite live recording is top drawer.

Unlike their colleagues across town at the Bavarian Radio Symphony, the State Orchestra does not have a particular close association with Mahler, at least not on record; off the top of my head, I can think only of a live taping of the First Symphony under Bruno Walter from 1950, but I’m sure readers will correct me if the case is otherwise. It is fun then to speculate exactly why Kirill Petrenko chose to record the Seventh Symphony first out of all of Mahler’s works, not least since it was a particular favourite calling-card of his predecessor at the Berlin PO, Simon Rattle. Indeed, in 2018 when Rattle gave his final concerts as Chief Conductor of the Berliners in London at the Royal Festival Hall, across town two days later at the Barbican, Petrenko and his Bavarian players were performing Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. The question is, of course, the gauntlet having been thrown down, does Petrenko match Rattle’s own achievements in this work?

In a lecture on the Seventh Symphony, Iván Fischer observed: “Mahler is generally understood to be a tragic composer, dark and full of pain…. He is a very honest composer and whatever he writes is clearly from the heart. And this time we have a symphony that is actually a lot of fun, full of humour and extremely optimistic.” And indeed, this sprawling, five-movement symphony, which usually lasts anything from around 70 to 85 minutes in performance (or over 100, if you are Otto Klemperer - incidentally the only person to record the piece who actually saw the composer himself conduct it), has confused both performers and audiences for many years., not least for its seemingly eclectic and disjointed ragbag collection of ideas, all strung together in the most bewildering fashion. It says much for Petrenko’s interpretation, over a swift but not rushed 73 minutes, that he is able to make the whole thing cohere into one seamless, if massive, whole, with each separate idea growing naturally and organically out of the one preceding it. His attention to detail is also masterly, Mahler’s multiple strands of orchestration all executed by his players with a brilliance, glitter and sparkle that few other conductors have come close to matching, let alone exceeding. In truth, these points alone elevate the recording to something more noteworthy than usual – but, there are also some problems.

The first is Petrenko’s interpretation – technically, this is very fine indeed but, for me, musically there are issues. This first becomes apparent midway through the first movement where, suddenly, the marches subside and distant fanfares are heard, followed by Mahler using cascading harps that seem to draw back a veil to reveal a scene of breath-taking beauty which has invariably described as a religious vision, or moonlit landscape, but then disappears almost as unexpectedly as it arrived. With Petrenko, this passage is indeed played very beautifully, but at its end he moves straight into the following material, the return of the opening funeral march, without any hesitation at all. Some conductors at this point execute a brief, albeit unwritten, pause, others at least a split-second moment of respite to re-orientate the listener, but Petrenko has no truck with either of those approaches with the effect that the march then comes across as part of the lyrical material. Strictly speaking, Petrenko is correct, but his way with the music at this point seems to diminish the significance of the lyrical sequence that has gone before – it’s almost as if it didn’t happen. This is one example of the dimension I think Petrenko misses in his interpretation, which has been articulated by the conductor Bruno Walter, who noted that Mahler, with his emphasis on the night and nature in this symphony, nicknamed the Song of the Night, was paying homage to a tradition of nineteenth century Romanticism. At the start of the second movement, Nachtmusik I, we hear this with horns calling out and being answered across the landscape – think of the opening Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, coincidentally nicknamed Romantic Symphony for an example of what Walter was referring to. However, in Petrenko’s hands this opening just appears as one melody for French horn in forte, followed by another in piano, rather than something far more evocative, the conductor seemingly reluctant to engage in any sense of fantasy in the music as explored with such delight by exponents like Klaus Tennstedt and Leonard Bernstein - to name but two of the finest exponents of this work.  In the spooky central scherzo, there is never the sense of cobwebs brushing against your face and gremlins lurking in the shadows, as with Rafael Kubelik; rather, Petrenko’s priorities are revealed when, towards the end of this spectral movement, there are two pizzicatos played in consecutive bars on the cellos and basses marked fffff (bars 401 & 402), a quintuple forte that always brings to my mind the sound of a guillotine falling. They are officially the loudest notes in the symphony and in Petrenko’s hands you are left in no doubt of that. In the following movement, the second Nachtmusik marked Andante amoroso, a nocturnal serenade complete with twinkling guitar and mandolin, the music does indeed glitter and sparkle under Petrenko, albeit with as much warmth as a clear, starlit Siberian night from his homeland. Admittedly, few match the full-blown love affair of John Barbirolli in this movement, but Petrenko’s is a very fleet footed, sub-twelve-minute Andante, with very little amoroso. The final movement, Mahler’s homage to Die Meistersinger, is similarly swift and dazzling with Petrenko also arguably rather hard-pressed and unsmiling, too. To demonstrate what is missing, we must turn to another Kirill, namely Kondrashin live in 1975 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, who, at a similar tempo, is just as exciting but is also able to incorporate so much more variety and colour into the music, rather than just mere diamond-precision velocity.

The second problem is that if your ace card is merely going to be orchestral brilliance, then the bar has already been set very high indeed. As good as Petrenko’s Bavarians undoubtedly are, they aren’t the match of Claudio Abbado’s Lucerne Festival Orchestra nor, somewhat ironically, do they equal, let alone surpass the Berlin PO under Simon Rattle in their later, live recordings from 2016; both of these conductors present their orchestra’s virtuosity framed within a more Mahlerian interpretation.  Nor are the Bavarians able to match the intuitive understanding of the music as the Concertgebouw Orchestra, especially in the still hugely impressive sounding Decca recording with Riccardo Chailly in 1994, or the Czech Philharmonic, especially in their too little-known, but extremely impressive live 2007 recording with Zdeněk Mácal on Exton, two orchestras proud of their Mahlerian pedigree, respectful of their history of having performed this very symphony under the composer’s own baton with - unlike with Petrenko’s players (and arguably too, Rattle’s Berliners and Abbado’s festival band) - a virtuosity entirely at the service of the music, rather than for virtuosity’s sake alone.

This is the problem for any new recording when there are over 140 versions of a symphony already in the catalogue – to be recommendable, your offering needs to be exceptional and I feel with Petrenko, very fine though he may be, his overall achievement in this recording is merely very good.

As the first release on the Bavarian State Orchestra’s own label, it is distinguished and the sound is certainly extremely fine, whether on compact disc or download (on mp3, FLAC and Hi Res Flac). It appears to be marketed as a ‘premium product’ (perhaps similar to the releases on the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s own label), with a premium price to match and the physical product is presented in a hard-back book with the disc in an envelope attached to the cover. There are many notes and quite a few photographs, even if the more experienced collector may detect more coffee table content than any attempt at serious enlightenment.

It is easy to understand how some commentators have been seduced by Petrenko’s podium wizardry in this recording – its brilliance is dazzling, and the details and colours he draws from the score during his own journey through Mahler’s Song of the Night are alone enough to elevate this release to at least one of ‘noteworthy’. However, the pre-eminence of the recorded examples I have included above, in combination with my points of criticism, mean that I personally do not place it among very greatest accounts of this ever-absorbing symphony.

Lee Denham

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