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The Mahler Symphonies A synoptic survey by Tony Duggan

Symphony No.7

The Seventh Symphony is often talked of as Mahler's least popular work, the one even some die-hard supporters have problems with. But it needn't be like that. Indeed it shouldn't be like that. You can't take Mahler à la carte, and to those who say this is the Mahler symphony they pass on I say they're missing an important chapter in his musical life story and, most important of all, the experience of one of the most extraordinary pieces of music he ever wrote.

It was composed "out of sequence" in two important ways. Symphonies 3-6 were written in two year cycles, mostly in Summer. The 3rd in 1895 & 6, the 4th in 1899 & 1900, the 5th in 1901 & 2 and the 6h in 1903 & 4. But the Seventh broke that sequence as the two Nachtmusik ("Nightmusic") movements (the second and fourth) were written in the Summer of 1904 immediately after finishing the Sixth Symphony. In other words, Mahler didn't wait a year before beginning the new work. So the first music he wrote straight after finishing the deeply tragic and grandly sinister Sixth was the second movement of the Seventh. Seen like this the movement emerges as a kind of therapy for all the terror, pain and catastrophe in the former and, I think, gives vital clues to the latter. Not only that, since movements 2 and 4 were composed first, it was movements 1, 3 and 5 that had to wait another year before being completed, and Donald Mitchell even brings forward evidence that the first movement may have been written last of all. So I believe the fact of the two Nachtmusik movements "in search of a symphony" for a whole year clinches it that it's THEIR mood that must be taken as paramount here, along with the Scherzo third movement which is another Nachtmusik in all but name.

So, to the extent that any work of Mahler's middle period is "about" anything, this is a symphony about Night and responses to it. But this is too often taken to mean "Night" for Mahler means emotional darkness: night as metaphor for tragedy and despair. This is not necessarily so. Night is also Evening when we relax and turn off from the day, Night is when we sleep for refreshment, Night is when we dream, and most dreams are not nightmares. There is also one more important aspect to Night and that's the promise of the return of Day followed by the Day itself. The two outer movements, the first and fifth, set this frame for the pattern of "Night and the return of Day" and the three central movements depict what Night can hold: convivial evenings with friends, walks at dusk, telegrams from Vienna, news of loved ones far away, and (in the 4th movement) nights of love. Also that all-important promise that a new day will finally come. I may be being more descriptive and programmatic than Mahler would want me to be, but I don't think a little imagination here can do any harm and even I can be persuaded, under the right circumstances, that another approach is valid.

People often cite the scherzo third movement as proof that Mahler is, in fact, still in nightmare territory. Maybe he is and maybe they have a point, but don't you find the spooks and ghosts in the scherzo rather stylised, not meant to be taken too seriously, especially when framed by their counterparts ? It's a view not universally accepted, but it's one I'm prepared to defend, even though I can be persuaded otherwise in the presence of one particular approach to the work and by one particular conductor. But that is often the way when cracking the Mahlerian "code" and more of that later.

The riotous pageant of the last movement is a problem for many. There are plenty of explanations as to what Mahler was aiming for in a movement that can seem out of place, but success in performance certainly depends on making the movement emerge naturally out of what has gone before and by playing it for all it's worth: no apologies for its weaknesses, whatever the philosophy behind the conductor's conception of the rest. It's a collage of colour, energy and celebration. It's "the return of Day" into which you can read what you wish. As with the scherzo, there is another explanation which can underpin the most exuberant of performances, but I will deal with that when the time comes. There are links to other works and composers here too. There's a near quote from Lehar's "The Merry Widow" which premiered in December 1905 and which Mahler and his wife enjoyed. There is also, I think, a reference to Mozart's Il Seraglio. And, of course, there is Wagner's Mastersingers of Nuremberg with its celebratory major chord optimism. In early performances Mahler actually preceded the symphony with the Overture, perhaps as a kind of balance with the last movement. Try playing Wagner's overture and then Mahler's symphony and see how the Wagner sets up what you are going to be aiming at by the time Mahler's work ends. A fact Mahler surely meant us to understand.

Since I believe Mahler is in more relaxed mood in the Seventh he can also take time to experiment. Hence the wonderful orchestration, the exotic instrumental plumage, the feeling of the orchestra pushed to some kind of limit and quite often, as a result, broken down into unusual groupings. So let the wonderful sounds wash over you, pick out the colours and textures that you like and have a good wallow. Mahler is showing off but in so doing is showing himself attached to the new trends bubbling around him which would usher in the worlds of Schoenberg and his associates. No surprise that this is the work that convinced Schoenberg of Mahler's greatness. One other aspect of the special orchestration as a sidelight is that a lot of it is very detailed and "thick". I think this becomes almost an unconscious metaphor for the times. Webern is around the corner and his use of extreme formal compression, the antidote to what Mahler represented, is about to impinge. So Mahler's Seventh is the old Viennese style at its limit, the textures almost sickly, like the sickly society they came from and, like them, pregnant with change.


Leonard Bernstein
was a great exponent of this work. Though he recorded it twice with the New York Philharmonic it's his first recording from 1966 on Sony (SMK 60564), that I prefer. There's a real sense of discovery about the playing that I think is missing in the DG remake, fine though that is, and goes to make it one the great Mahler recordings that should be in every collection. It also has the attraction of being on a single disc at medium price. Bernstein steers his way through Mahler's notoriously ambiguous tempo changes during the exposition particularly well. I especially like his clear-sighted vision during the first return of the opening march with its reprise of the oar strokes that unlocked Mahler's creative block when he came to write this first movement last of all. Here, and at the very start, the famous tenor horn solo ("Here nature roars", Mahler tells us), one of the most distinctive sounds in this most distinctive of works, has a very "open-air" quality to it which is surely right. The second subject (bars 118-133) is marked to be played with great a sweep but it's refreshing to hear Bernstein holding back a little, allowing the idea to develop a bit before he allows release. This is indicative of Bernstein's care for Mahler's detailed markings in this work which he doesn't, as so often, cover up with too many of his own. At the close of the exposition note the swagger in the march, percussion to the fore. The development section is one of Mahler's greatest imaginative creations, one of those passages that see him "shedding a skin" to quote Cardus, forging a new paths and with what finesse Bernstein unfolds the huge vistas Mahler sets out before us. I also admire the element of innocent wonderment he shows. The recapitulation, with its growling trombone solo reminiscent of the Third Symphony, finds Bernstein striking just the right contrast with what has gone as if to say we are back to earthly things, earthly night, and he mixes all the elements of what has gone before with the most superb sense of structure married to great imagination. The open quality of the recording, allied to the close balances, really help delineate the myriad colours of the opening of the second movement (Nachtmusik I) too with its solo horns calling each other and the woodwind trills interspersed. As the movement gets under way I like the rather portly gait Bernstein adopts to what is, after all, another march, albeit one taking place in the dark. To contrast with this, the first Trio has an engaging warmth and a lightness of touch and the second a welcome close balance to the harp. All in all, this is a great recording to follow with a score, so sharp is each detail recorded - ideal for domestic listening in spite of its age. This applies just as much to the third movement scherzo with its shrieks and bumps and "off-beat" gait. I like the way Bernstein suggests the dance is never far away: haunted ballrooms indeed. As I have said before, I maintain this to be a portrait of a nightmare rather that a nightmare itself and I believe Bernstein sees it like that also since he doesn't go in for too many startling effects. Though there are some porky blasts from his tuba to unsettle us. Throughout, the playing of the NYPO is exemplary, a model of poise and controlled virtuosity where you have the impression the soloists are all listening to each other. In the fourth movement (Nachtmusik II), Bernstein relaxes into the warmth of the movement with more than a touch of the Siegfried Idylls and maybe here he does indulge himself just a little more. I think this movement should go a little quicker to prepare for the finale, but that is a personal view. He certainly maps every section superbly with the guitar and mandolin, two sounds that make this movement so distinctive, balanced well to the fore as they should be. Finally, can Bernstein crown his fine performance with a last movement tingling with energy and verve ? Of course he can and in so doing pulls together the threads of the piece towards the end with the surest of touches, especially in the recall of the main theme from the first movement which is one of the elements that really rounds of this symphony in triumph. Bernstein never doubts this music, or its place in the whole, for one second, and makes his players deliver it as though it is the most important music ever written. No mean feat.


One of Bernstein's leading American disciples is Michael Tilson Thomas and his recent recording with the London Symphony Orchestra on RCA (09026 63510 2) is a real prospect for the library. Like Bernstein's, it's a near-perfect balance between inner detail and outward form. This latter point can be heard most strongly in the first movement where an unerring grasp of those difficult tempo relationships between each section never reduces things to the rag-bag of episodes they can sometimes sound. Tilson Thomas does give himself enough space for us to hear the remarkable instrumental detailing, however. So I love the ripe tenor horn of Ian Bousfield "roaring", the translucent texturing of woodwind against strings in so many parts of the movement, and the way Tilson Thomas achieves a welcome, and unusually dark-grained, quality to the development section where Mahler's transfigured nightscape really gets under the skin. Don't get the idea that the first movement in this recording is all limpid beauty and dark contemplation, however. When he needs to, Tilson Thomas can be tough, driving on with more emphasis on the snap of the marches that cross and re-cross this movement than we are sometimes used to. These marches never sound rushed when played like this and that's another tribute to the grasp of this movement shown by a conductor who really can deliver weight and propulsion at the same time. Towards the end of the movement the march brings passion, hammered home by the well-caught percussion rounding out an interpretation that stays in the mind long after the music has stopped. The poised, refined playing of a beautifully prepared LSO and the rich recording, just enough air around the instruments, are allies in all this as they will remain right the way through the rest of the work. You can admire the feeling of the march's tread in the second movement but, as before, this is not the whole story and the way Tilson Thomas identifies a Wunderhorn link in some of the accompaniments is impressive. This is a very spacious conception of the movement but one never lacking in interest through Tilson Thomas's fine ear for detail, his imagination and his ability to really take us into the heart of music. This is especially evident in the idiomatic quality to the interludes that emerge with a really tawdry tone, slinky and feline. The third movement has the right amount of menace balanced by a veil of fantasy and I also thought Tilson Thomas showed a rare understanding of the profound difference in the Trios of this movement, islands of uneasy calm in the dreamy maelstrom. In the fourth movement, the second Nachtmusik, the emphasis, as with Bernstein, is on warmth and noble ardour assisted greatly by emphatic portamenti from the strings which inject just the right amount of tension and also the impression that this is music out of an essentially sick society. It's good to report that under Tilson Thomas the last movement is grand, warm, affirmative and essentially ceremonial. It also shows that he knows when to smile - not always the case with Mahler conductors, and this is a real plus. In the last analysis I don't think Tilson Thomas quite reaches the level of greatness achieved by his mentor, but he does come very close.


With orchestral virtuosity in mind for the last movement we should consider a recording of the Seventh by that prince among virtuoso orchestras, the Chicago Symphony. However, the one I have in mind is under a conductor more renowned for the cerebral, hands-off approach so we are faced with a fascinating contrast in pairing that throws important light on this work. Claudio Abbado's recording on DG (445 513-2) is available on a single disc at medium price and is certainly one of the finest played and recorded versions on the market which I much prefer to Sir Georg Solti's Chicago version on Decca. As ever for me, Solti drives too hard and brutalises too much music that, even when submitted to a more Modernist approach, needs some breathing space to let subtle shades of light play on what we hear. Under Abbado the opening of the first movement is significantly darker tinted than our previous two versions with a striking stress on mystery. Then, when the tenor horn takes up the familiar lament, there's real sense of nature's majesty - a deep red sun in a leaden winter sky - and it must be said that of all the recordings I have heard the Chicago Symphony boasts the best tenor horn player of all. Abbado is as fine as Bernstein in his judgement of the tempo changes at the outset, but his engineers and orchestra deliver us much more sonority and depth. I do admire the clarity of the Bernstein but there is much to be said for this more upholstered palette. Abbado is certainly more luxuriant than Bernstein in the delicious second subject but less impetuous at the climax which he tempers with a more withdrawn quality to the transition into the development that follows. Abbado does mark some wonderful contrasts in this movement without getting in the way of the symphonic ebb and flow. The development section gains from the splendid depth of the recorded sound and the subtle nuances of shade that the Chicago players can bring in response to Abbado's ear for detail. Note too that extra emphasis on darker tones which comes to the fore again in the recapitulation where the lower registers really tell like no other before us. The emphasis in Nachtmusik I is to refinement which means Abbado misses a little of the march's trenchancy to be found with Bernstein which I prefer here for the greater sense of definition. Don't misunderstand me, however. Abbado is as effective in his own way and so the first Trio is classical in its restraint and poise. I did wonder whether the cowbells section sounded a little too oriental, but that's a small point. Then in the spooky third movement Abbado confounds expectations by being more diabolical than Bernstein. He also observes Mahler's marking Schattenhaft ("Shadow-like") to a greater extent than most. Maybe the opacity of the recording robs Abbado of some of the diabolism he is aiming for later on and Bernstein, with his closer and more clipped sound, remains in the memory longer. The second Nachtmusik is delicate and withdrawn under Abbado and again I prefer Bernstein's more direct approach, but even he, as I said above, may be a little too affectionate here. For me, other conductors react more appropriately to this movement, but we shall come to them soon. There is no doubt Abbado coaxes some lovely playing in this movement, seeing this as something more than a Mediterranean serenade, as you can hear by the way the guitar strummings seem to betoken the sick Viennese society I mentioned at the start. And does the famed virtuosity of the Chicago Symphony carry all before it in the last movement ? The answer, I feel, is "not quite" because Abbado is determined to view this movement in a more neo-classical sense with a degree of detachment. This is cast by Mahler, after all, as a Rondo and last movements don't come more classical than that. This does have one major additional benefit in that the Chicago brass section gets reined back a bit proving that, under the right conductor, they can be made to play with real humanity to match the power. It would be very hard to choose between Abbado and Bernstein because both have much to recommend them. Abbado's is the richer experience with more colour and variety than Bernstein and he is better recorded. But Bernstein is more dramatic, more aware of the contrasts that abound, and his sound recording has virtues for home listening over the longer period that Abbado may lack, notably in detail.


This has been something of a signature work for Sir Simon Rattle. I myself possess at least three "off-air" tapes of him "live", of which more later. When the time came for him to record the work he and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra went into a studio and taped it in the usual way. But Rattle was dissatisfied with the result and persuaded EMI to set aside what they had in favour of recording it again "live" in concert. So, in 1992, microphones were set up at the Maltings, Snape and the resulting performance that took place can now be heard on CDC 7 54344 2. I have seen this recommended as a first choice on a number of occasions but, though I regard Rattle as one of the leading exponents of this work, I can't find myself quite in agreement. It's a fine performance with many virtues, one that deserves to be considered among the best, but there are drawbacks which need to be addressed. Though his introduction to the first movement is slower than some, I thought Rattle smoothes out the tempo changes Mahler asks for in this passage and makes less of the sweep others observe in the second subject. He seems to want to steer a too clear line through the opening which I don't think is the appropriate thing to do. What appears to be more stress on symphonic rigour is reinforced in the development where Rattle sifts the textures very clearly though without the sense of wonder Bernstein brings and likewise in the recapitulation. So this is a very coherent and focussed reading of the first movement, not what you might expect from Rattle whose Mahler performances tend to be remarkable for the teasing out of every detail in the score. In its own way it's a good rendition of the first movement but it exposes the major criticism I have of the sound recording. I don't know why The Maltings was chosen but this smaller hall restricts the sound of the orchestra quite considerably. The strings especially sound undernourished which they don't in other Mahler recordings they have made with Rattle. Of course, if the performance itself had been touched with greatness this would not have mattered so much. However, it would be interesting to hear what the abandoned studio recording sounded like because I have to say I cannot discern much that may have been gained by taking it "live". The tempo of the second movement is slightly quicker than other versions, two minutes quicker than Abbado's for example, and this allows Rattle, like Horenstein before him, to explore more of the ironies in the music rather than just the shadows which is often the case. In fact Rattle saves his darkness for the Scherzo. Overall he is slower than most in that movement and seems, as you would expect, concerned to bring out every detail, every twist and turn, of the score. He is also brilliant at the "Shadow-like" marking so all of his effects seem to come off superbly, complete with a fine "winding down" at the close. His Nachtmusik II has achieved controversy in being a lot quicker than we are used to, but I would defend Rattle here. As with Horenstein, there are dividends in not indulging this music in that a more free-flowing performance can throw a bridge into the last movement making the latter cohere more into the work's structure. True, there are some moments when Rattle appears to border on the perfunctory, but it's close and I think he is to be congratulated for making such a statement as he is also for making sure the mandolin and guitar really tell. An exuberant finale follows and I think you can now hear the benefits of recording "live" because there are at last passages where risks are clearly taken, even though in sheer virtuoso dash they may not be up to the standard of Chicago, New York or Amsterdam. So this is a fine performance which I wouldn't want to rule out of consideration. However, Rattle is capable of much better than this. In fact, he's capable of a performance of this work where every aspect of his particular flair for Mahler can be heard to shattering effect. How do I know this ? I know it because I possess an "off-air" tape of a performance he gave with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1999 which is simply one of the most remarkable Mahler recordings I have heard in over thirty years and which, if it was to be released commercially (which EMI should do now if they have any sense) would immediately go to the top of any list and stay there. No wonder it was this performance that many believe clinched his appointment as the Berlin Philharmonic's next Chief Conductor. This is the performance I feel Rattle was aiming for in 1992 and it really should be more widely available and the ball is therefore in EMI's court. They have already released an Austrian Radio tape of Rattle's Mahler Ninth "live" so they can do so now with this Seventh from Berlin.


There is another "live" recording which, in my opinion, approaches that of Rattle's in Berlin and fortunately is available on CD. In 1969 Jascha Horenstein performed the work at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London with the New Philharmonia and a tape of the BBC broadcast has found its way on to a number of issues since then. (Music and Arts CD-4727, Descant 02 - available from Berkshire Record Outlets). The opening of the work is deeply imposing with a real funereal tread in the strings, straight out of the Fifth Symphony - a remarkable effect. Notice also the high woodwind squealing out of the texture. As ever, Horenstein shows himself to be the master of the total sound. What he also achieves in the exposition is what Rattle tried to do but failed and that is relate the tempo changes to each other, knitting the exposition together with a sure grip. He also manages tenderness and real sweep in the second subject. Then in the wonderful development section there's a palpable inner tension that Horenstein somehow seems to carry over from the start and which will distinguish this reading of the first movement to the end. Evidence again of Horenstein's ability to "read" an entire movement and then deliver it almost in one "breath". At the recapitulation note the slight pause before it starts, like a "pause for breath", then beneath the earthy trombone solo the presence of a lower string cushion that I think is unique. His delivery of this passage is not pretty, though. It's more reminiscent of the trombone solo passages in the first movement of the Third than many I have heard and shows a true natural grandeur. So complete is Horenstein's grasp of every aspect of this first movement that the end is genuinely triumphant, the feeling that you have lived through something important. The second movement's opening has about it an analytical quality but this then gives way to a freer treatment of the main material and the Trios. Horenstein seems to see these as much lighter passages in tone than many of his colleagues, recognising the need for contrasts in this work. Overall he is a full two minutes quicker than Abbado and Bernstein, for example, but the music never sounds rushed. Indeed, it sounds perfectly natural with wit and irony that's a joy to hear. The second Trio then slows a little, allowing Horenstein to explore the possibilities of the music. In the Scherzo, contrasting again, Horenstein favours a slightly slower tempo with the shadows taken care of in his care for lower registers helped by the large acoustic. Mood rather than effect seems to be Horenstein's philosophy where the temptation must be to go for the latter. But he wasn't that kind of conductor. He always looked beyond the obvious and since this "one off" concert performance is available to us we can appreciate how the benefits of this kind of approach accrue over time. It's such a pity he never recorded it commercially, of course. There are rough patches to the playing here and also the way the recording was made means the sound you hear is not ideal. However, it's hard to believe a studio recording would have bettered this in anything other than those areas. His second Nachtmusik, like Rattle's, is quite quick, more andante, which I think is right in that it suits the concept of a serenade far better. I would also make the suggestion that since this music doesn't represent Mahler at his best it might be better if it doesn't detain us too long. To those who like their Mahler indulgent I would point to this movement needing to provide a bridge to the finale, which under Horenstein it does, making his last movement sound a natural conclusion to this work, marking the end of our journey out of Night and into Day more successfully than most. The fact that he and his orchestra play it for all it's worth just adds the cherry to the icing on the cake with the momentum kept up to a degree other conductors only dream of. At the close the threads are pulled together and the very end, horns blazing like a great shout of joy, means you will want to join in the applause of the audience. Those strange, haunted, benighted souls for whom perfection of sound and playing come before everything will moan that this version falls short of their definition of the acceptable. But I believe this to be one of the greatest Mahler Sevenths on the market. Don't miss it while it remains available and pray that the BBC do the decent thing and put out an official release on BBC Legends soon.


For those on the most limited budgets the Naxos super-bargain version with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Halász (8.550531) is worth considering. I have been unimpressed with most of the company's Mahler cycle but the Seventh is a cut above the rest with a nicely poised, straightforward account which only fails to convince completely because of the orchestra's less than sure grasp of the Mahler idiom. Mahler exposes the second rate in orchestras like no other composer and this is never more true than in the last movement on this version. However, if you can afford no more than this you will have in your collection an account that will serve you well. But Bernstein doesn't cost much more and the extra outlay is well worth it.

Bernard Haitink has the distinction of recording this work more times than anyone. He has been into the studio no less than three times with it: twice with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and once with the Berlin Philharmonic. Of the three it's his second version with the Concertgebouw I prefer. You can find this as a Philips "Dutch Masters" release (4629462) and it's worth looking for even though I wouldn't myself place it ahead of the others I have dealt with in detail. Haitink's approach is exemplary and solid, straightforward and with the stress on beauty of tone and line. He is also blessed with orchestral playing that is truly second to none. But I think there is just a little more to this work than Haitink delivers, though there's no doubt his is a persuasive account.

Performances of the Seventh which accentuate the extreme multiplicity of sounds contained in this work are those which can be said to represent the more contemporary approach. There are a number of these on the market by such luminaries of 20th Century music as Pierre Boulez, Hans Rosbaud, Michael Gielen and, most remarkable of all, Hermann Scherchen.

There are two recordings available conducted by Hans Rosbaud but it's his second on Wergo (WER 64062) from 1957 that I prefer. Textures are chillingly clear and sharply delineated. No fat at all on the trombone solos in the first movement, for example. His account of the first movement's recapitulation is superbly argued, symphonically aware to a quite stunning degree, and in keeping with his approach right through where the key words I kept writing down in my notes were "concentration" and "grip". This is not a conductor to go in for effects or to luxuriate in sheer sound. His orchestra, the Symphony Orchestra of South West German Radio, is a few steps short of the top flight but their concentration and intelligence in playing a work which in 1957 was by no stretch of the imagination familiar repertoire is remarkable. In the Scherzo Rosbaud excels in the grotesques and though the tempo is kept up manages a remarkable feeling of "tread", bringing out points of detail that seem to elude many subsequent interpreters completely. I think Rosbaud illustrates how it's possible to make every detail tell without too much accentuation and in this offers something fascinating and very rewarding - instructive too. There is absolutely no warmth in the second Nachtmusik and this might bother some, but I think it's well in keeping with the rest of his performance and pays great dividends. No question from Rosbaud that this is a 20th Century work through and through. Also, as with Horenstein and Rattle, Rosbaud's more "hands-off" approach in the fourth movement prepares the ground for the finale. This strains the orchestra a little but sheer virtuosity for virtuosity's sake could not be further from the mind of Hans Rosbaud. In the last analysis I believe this is an essential recording for the Mahler enthusiast interested in seeing a full profile of possible approaches to this work from different periods. The mono sound is rather limited and yet its sheer starkness only adds to the virtues of the performance and I think the engineers have made a superb job of the transfer. Consider this recording very seriously. It will reveal itself over time and serve you well as a fascinating alternative.

Much better in terms of sound and playing and very much within the same contemporary tradition as Rosbaud is Michael Gielen on Intercord (860.924) [Now re-released and more readily available]. Gielen conducts Rosbaud's old orchestra, albeit in 1993, and is recorded appropriately in The Hans Rosbaud Studio in Baden-Baden. So what better pedigree could there be than that ? So well played and recorded is this version that I believe it must be considered in the front rank of recordings available, making the fact that it's quite hard to find rather a pity. In the opening of the first movement notice how clearly Gielen articulates the strings at the start, each individual note clear, and the care he gives those various gradations of tempo. This is as good as it gets. The whole of the exposition is remarkable for its superb balance between space and movement with the clearest presentation of the myriad parts. Then in the glorious development Gielen's astringency allows for a wonderful sense of repose and space, grandeur too, all of which contrasts well with the latter part of the movement where the return of the march finds Gielen pressing forward. His place among those conductors who bring a more contemporary approach to this work, as defined above, finds particular expression in the second movement where all the sounds which were new to Mahler's music are given vivid expression. This Gielen version, both here and elsewhere, really can be looked on as a lexicon of this work's sounds - notice the woodwind trills, for example, and also the splendid rasp of the muted horn. Tension creeps in at times and this is more of a night piece under Gielen than it is with others. He is also alive to the idea of seeing passages of this work as near chamber music, revelling in the unusual instrumental combinations. The Scherzo exploits the spooky effects in the score giving a great sense of disjunction than is often the case. Very similar to Rosbaud again here. Gielen's second Nachtmusik is tense but he manages a degree more warmth with mandolin and guitar to the fore than Rosbaud does and some remarkable string slides and horn rasps. Does Gielen crown this recording with a great last movement ? His delivery of it certainly doesn't have quite the inevitability of Horenstein but he's close. He doesn't have Bernstein's virtuoso abandon either, but makes up for a great deal with a very wide-eyed and superbly toned performance. But if we are to find the best, the most remarkable, performance from that list of conductors whose 20th century credentials mark them out it's to Hermann Scherchen we must turn to experience something which is, I believe, absolutely unique.

I have known Hermann Scherchen's 1953 Vienna Symphony Orchestra recording of the Seventh, now on Millennium Classics (MCD 80082), longer than any other. I used to borrow the Westminster LPs from the local library in the 1960s before I got my hands on Bernstein's. It's an interesting recording with some fine, though not always secure, playing conducted by one of the great conductors of the 20th century who played in the viola section in the work's first performance in Berlin under Oskar Fried. Were it the only recording of the work by Scherchen I would recommend it to you as an interesting addition to the discography by one of the great pioneers of 20th century music and Mahlerian interpretation. One that also seems to show him on his "best behaviour" which, when you consider the positive gains to be had from Scherchen sometimes taking a less familiar path, is something of a disappointment. But this isn't the only recording of the work by him that we have in front of us. There is another, recorded in 1965 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Music and Arts (CD-695), that insists itself into any profile of this remarkable work in spite of a second rate orchestra with second rate transcription disc sound to go with it.

As I indicated at the start I have usually viewed this work in one particular way. Hearing the Toronto recording by Scherchen didn't make me change my mind so much as illustrated another view I have come across but have been doubtful about. Maybe in time I will come to accept this as definitive. More likely, like in all great art, there are various ways of making sense of what a creator is saying. What I think this Toronto recording does, far more than any other, is fix the work firmly in the 20th Century rather than the turn of the 19th. Not for Scherchen the idea of Mahler "in holiday mood" or "off duty" following the rigours of the Sixth. What we have is the Seventh seeming to carry on from where the Sixth left off. Where tensions that were about to overwhelm the wider world, almost certainly suggested by Mahler in the Sixth, can be found in this work too. Overall, Scherchen's tempi in Toronto are quicker than they were in Vienna: nine minutes, and that's a lot. The tempo relationships, however, seem just as carefully managed but the effect is more challenging with less opportunity to linger and admire the view. This has a twofold effect. First, there is even more of a symphonic "line" through the work which knits together the disparate elements in a more rigorous fashion, stresses structural integrity and adds to the analytical quality whilst still providing coherence to hold Scherchen's undoubted waywardness in check. Second, the passages meant to be taken quicker, like the Allegro of the first movement, have a more dissonant air, an astringency that stresses harder edges to the sonorities. This is not the comfortable ride the Seventh can sometimes be and there's no better illustration of this than in how Scherchen takes the first movement. Even in the translucent passages, where Mahler's extraordinary liquid counterpoint caresses the ear, Scherchen seems by his challenging tempi, his directness, his willingness to accentuate the grotesque and the ugly in the intervening sections, to be stressing their ultimate fragility. I feel he shows them to us only in order to snatch them away and for us to feel their loss. They become "islands of promise" within "the march of change" that, at the end of the whole symphony, takes them away in the most awful way imaginable, in the way catastrophe overwhelmed Europe not many years after Mahler's death, in fact, and in the way music coming from that time mirrored these changes.

March rhythms are to the fore in the second movement under Scherchen. Those that are unique to the movement but also Mahler's self-quotation of the rhythm from that most militaristic of the Wunderhorn songs, Revelge, is made the most of too. (As also is a reminiscence of the "people's march" from the first movement of the Third Symphony.) The tempo is kept well up so, when the opening horn figures return after the first Trio, the link is seamless. Into this march-influenced night music (as if the march rhythms of the first movement have not been shaken off and so accentuate the modernist complexes of this work again) there is another aspect of night I had only been dimly aware of but which Scherchen brings out superbly - a whiff of 1920s Berlin cabaret: sleazy and sick but very compelling.

As I have said before, I usually view the Scherzo as a stylised nightmare, what a clever composer is telling us a nightmare should be like. Somehow Scherchen makes a case that Mahler was serious and that this isn't a piece of artifice but the real thing. The tempo encourages a tense and nervy impression with the grotesques to the fore and with no lyricism in the, usually nostalgic, Trios. A pity Scherchen doesn't observe the famous explosive snap pizzicato, though. Always the man to do the unexpected, he observes it in his Vienna recording where things are much more comfortable. Under Scherchen I was reminded that this movement occupies the same place in the Seventh that the Purgatorio does in the Tenth. In the fourth movement an edge is added by the prominence Scherchen gives to the mandolin and guitar where they sour this music even more than we are used to and stress the darker side again. It is also very much chamber music in texture, but this is a very cloying, sick society being depicted.

Marches, sleazy cabaret, the workers on the rise, dissonance, decadent sounds from a sick society, sudden change, the mutability of the beguiling, all seen through the perspective of night is what we have had so far from Scherchen. A sick society on the verge of destruction ? That sickness the symptom of the malaise ? Night and the return of day as metaphor for something ? For Scherchen the answer comes in the last movement. I usually think of the last movement as a celebration, plain and simple. Night is over, day has come, we need fear no more because what can hurt us in daylight ? I still find this a valid way of looking at the movement, but I see it can depend on how it's interpreted and, more particularly, how that interpretation fits with the rest of the work and the way that has been interpreted. The whole of Scherchen's Toronto performance is unusually coherent so his view of the last movement is that much more shattering in its effect. Whatever one's view of the work, as I said before, the last movement must seem to come naturally out of the others rather than be something tacked on to it. An unambiguously joyful interpretation of the last movement works if the other four have been played in a more relaxed, romantic way. But Scherchen doesn't play them like that so what is his solution ? It's to take the side of those who see the last movement as a parody of what I have just said and this fits with what has gone before admirably. Day has dawned, night is over, but that isn't the end of our problems, it's only the beginning. There seems to be manic desperation injected into the music now and this is the paramount engine for what is conveyed. Each time the opening comes round again, each time the cymbals start crashing out, each time a dance is unleashed, Scherchen seems to inject more and yet more desperation so that, by the end, you want it all to stop. The best analogy I can think of are those infamous dance marathons from the 1930s. In those "events" what should be a joyous and enjoyable thing is corrupted into torture. That's the feeling I have with Scherchen. All these fanfares and dances, the cymbals and popular songs, the operetta allusions, the pageantry, should make us smile and be happy. Instead we are being ORDERED to be happy. It's an empty vessel Mahler is offering us in his new day as interpreted by Scherchen. I mentioned how in the first movement under Scherchen the "islands of promise" get swept away by "the march of change" and how this, for me, stresses this symphony as a 20th century work prefiguring the massive changes that would come to civilisation in 1914 and knock it down. The last movement in this recording links back to that idea and becomes the coup de grace. There are no "islands of promise" in this last movement under Scherchen, it's all "the march of change". But now the march has itself been changed and swept into a parody of a party, a grimacing dance marathon at the end of which is only disaster, made more terrifying because it's disaster with a smile on its face. It has been said that up to 1914 Europe danced its way to Armageddon. In Mahler's Seventh, as conducted by Scherchen in Toronto, I think in the last movement he takes us on to the dance floor and dances us to death.

Selected Recordings

Leonard Bernstein  New York Philharmonic Sony SMK 60564  Crotchet   Amazon UK
Michael Tilson Thomas London Symphony Orchestra on RCA 09026 63510 2  Crotchet
Claudio Abbado
Chicago Symphony Orchestra DG 445 513 2  Amazon UK    Crotchet
Sir Simon Rattle City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra EMI CDC 7 54344 2  Crotchet   Amazon UK
Jascha Horenstein New Philharmonia Orchestra Music and Arts CD-4727, ( and Descant 02 - available from Berkshire Record Outlets)
Michael Halász  Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra Naxos 8.550531 Amazon UK    Crotchet
Bernard Haitink Concertgebouw Orchestra  Philips "Dutch Masters" 4629462
Hans Rosbaud Symphony Orchestra of South West German Radio Wergo WER 64062   Crotchet    Amazon UK
Michael Gielen
Symphony Orchestra of South West German Radio Intercord 860.924  Amazon US
Hermann Scherchen
Vienna Symphony Orchestra Millennium Classics MCD 80082
Hermann Scherchen
 Toronto Symphony Orchestra Music and Arts CD-695

See subsequent review

Symphony No.7 in E minor Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken Conducted by Hans Zender CPO 999 478-2 [78.40]


 



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