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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)

Symphony No. 7 in E Minor (1905-5)

Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado

Recorded in the Philharmonie, Berlin in May 2001

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 471 623-2 [78.07]


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This is the second of three new Mahler symphony recordings from Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon. I have already reviewed the Third (471 502-2) and will review the Ninth (471 624-2) soon. Unlike the Third, which was recorded whilst the orchestra was on tour in London, this Seventh was made in their home hall in Berlin. As with all three works, this is Abbado’s second recording so comparisons are again inevitable with his earlier version with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1984. Having made my comparisons I have to tell you immediately that I simply cannot understand why this new recording has been made because it adds nothing new of any importance to what was set down before.

There are a number of reasons why a conductor might want to re-record a work. He may have radically rethought his interpretation. He may have been dissatisfied with the playing of the orchestra first time around. He may feel that recording technology has improved so much that he wants to take advantage of that. He may also want to record the work again "live" as opposed to in the studio, believing that a sense of occasion will give his interpretation that extra lift. Let me deal with each of these points in turn as they apply to Abbado and Mahler’s Seventh.

So far as I can tell Abbado has not radically altered his conception of this work since 1984. Indeed for most of the time it seems to me that has not altered his interpretation at all. I would go even further and say there are passages where it is almost as if he is trying to recreate what he did first time round – the first and third movements especially. What is the point of that? In those small areas where there has been an apparent rethink I prefer the first thoughts anyway and will deal with those later.

The playing of the Berlin Philharmonic in this new recording is superb. Every department of the orchestra gives evidence that here is one of the great orchestras on top form. There is beauty of tone, corporate and solo virtuosity and absolute security of ensemble. However, the playing of the Chicago Symphony was all of those things and more. I don’t usually like the Chicago in Mahler but here I always make an exception. Most important of all they bring an extra dimension to their playing: an enhanced ability to make the music "sing" more than it does in Berlin. Comparing the two performances I cannot escape the impression that the Berlin Philharmonic had to be taught how to get under the skin of the music where the Chicago Symphony did it because they knew the music much better. In 1984 they would have played this work more times than the Berlin Philharmonic of 2001. For example, listening to the two performances of the last movement (at 17:45 exactly the same timing to the very second) the windy city pizzazz of Chicago kicks the music along with more of an impression of playing before a "live" audience. Which is strange because the Chicago recording was done in the studio whereas the Berlin recording was made in front of an audience.

Then there is the question of recorded sound. On the Berlin version it is certainly very fine. However, the sound on the Chicago version, even though it’s from seventeen years ago, is even finer still. The Berlin recording suffers from some vagaries of "multi-miking" and I think also from the acoustically difficult hall it is made in and so there is a nagging artificiality to the sound. The Chicago recording, on the other hand, is rich and detailed and never seems to get in the way of enjoyment. Instrumental perspectives seem a lot more natural there too. Both recordings are digital and the version of the Chicago recording I have used as reference is the single disc re-issue on the DG Masters label (445 513-2) that was a remastering of the original tape anyway. I recommend that you look out for that one because it is cheaper than the Berlin version. It also has twenty-one separate entry points annotated in the liner booklet with score reference where the new version has just one band for each movement. I’m tempted to say that a better example of CD marketing having taken a backward step you couldn’t find but then there is the question of the liner notes which clinches the point even better. In the new version there is a fine essay by Donald Mitchell. In the earlier version there is also a fine essay by Donald Mitchell, only it’s twice the length.

Finally there is the question of a "live" recording versus a studio one. All three of these new Mahler recordings by Abbado are from public performances. In the case of the Third I felt this was certainly a virtue over the earlier studio one in Vienna. Maybe because that was the result of just the one performance released on CD. This new recording of the Seventh certainly carries the "Live Recording" label and yet the presence of just a month rather than a day in the recording date entry suggests to me it has been edited together from a number of performances. But it hardly matters. Perversely I feel the Chicago studio version gives more the impression of being a "live" performance even though it isn’t. Which only goes to show you should never judge a book by its cover.

I do not want you to get the wrong impression of what I think about this new recording of Mahler’s Seventh. None of the above would have been necessary to write had this been Abbado’s one and only recording of the work. But the existence of the superb earlier recording and the fact that this new recording really adds nothing to it has annoyed me when the recording industry is in such dire straits. Quite honestly I think this recording an utter waste of what are apparently precious resources.

However, let us consider the recording just as it stands because it is worth it. The opening of the first movement is suitably dark-tinted with a striking stress on the mysterious. When the tenor horn takes up the familiar lament there’s real sense of nature’s majesty, not quite as raw as it can sound, but convincing and moving. Though I cannot help but say here that the Chicago Symphony has the better tenor horn player who is more subtle and insinuating. Abbado is subtle at his suggestion of the tempo changes at the outset too, not as distinct as Bernstein or Horenstein, but this only adds to Abbado’s unerring skill at knitting together the disparate elements as they unfold later. The Berlin engineers and the orchestra deliver great sonority and great depth. I like very much the clarity of Bernstein on Sony and also Gielen on Hänssler, but there is much to be said for the more luxuriant palette of Abbado and the Berliners. Abbado is certainly luxuriant in the second subject but then tempers with a more withdrawn quality to the transition into the development.

As with the Chicago recording, the emphasis in the Nachtmusik I second movement is refinement and that means Abbado misses again just a little of the march’s trenchancy to be found with Bernstein and especially Horenstein who "gets" this movement where many others don’t. I like a greater sense of definition in this movement to really stress the new sound world Mahler was breaking into at this point in his life. But Abbado is as effective in his own way and so the first Trio is classical in its restraint and poise, as it was in Chicago too and provides a welcome rest.

In the spectral third movement Abbado observes Mahler’s marking "Schattenhaft" ("Shadow-like") splendidly. There may be more diabolism in Rattle and Kubelik but Abbado’s much more musical approach certainly brings its own rewards. Only in the second Nachtmusik fourth movement is there any real degree of difference between the two Abbado recordings and even here Abbado’s earlier thoughts were superior to these ears. Abbado is quicker this time and there is certainly a case for keeping the movement’s tempo up, as Horenstein and Rattle do. But that is usually in the context of a performance different from this one. Since the rest of the performance is almost identical to the earlier one, it seems logical for this movement to remain the same because it worked last time so well. What is lost this time from Abbado is one of the aspects I so liked before. In Chicago Abbado coaxed lovely playing but he saw this movement as something more than a Mediterranean serenade, especially in the way that the strumming of the guitar seemed to speak volumes for the sick, decadent, slightly rancid Viennese society out of which this work came. There is not a hint of that in the movement this time round. It is as if the vice squad have come and taken the whores off the street, and I do miss them terribly.

As I explained above the sheer virtuosity of the Chicago Symphony carries the day in the last movement when they are compared with the Berliners who, superbly though they play, against their American colleagues still sound like civil servants on an afternoon outing. Even then there is the impression that Abbado’s determination to view this movement in a more neo-classical sense with a degree of detachment robs it a little of the kind of virtuosity it really needs. It gets that from the likes of Bernstein and, surprisingly, Kondrashin in a recently issued "live" recording on Tahra (TAH451) that I reviewed here recently.

Kondrashin’s "bat out of hell" delivery of the last movement with the Concertgebouw Orchestra is tremendous and with Bernstein and Horenstein one of my top choices for this symphony as a whole. But Abbado’s last movement is a rich experience too, which ever of his two versions are played, with more variety of orchestral colours. Bernstein and Horenstein are more dramatic, more aware of the contrasts that abound here, and Bernstein’s sound recording has virtues for home listening over the longer period that I don’t think either of the Abbado’s does, digital or not. Horenstein sound recording suffers from the fact that his "aircheck" is far from ideal. I can cope with that, but many of you may not. For all that do not overlook Horenstein’s 1969 "live" performance, I beg you. It exposes raw nerves in this symphony like few others and yet still manages the "darkness to light" journey triumphantly too. Two colleagues and myself reviewed the BBC Legends version of Horenstein’s recording. Those reviews should tell you all you need to know about that great old version and how best to explore it.

At the very end of the symphony Mahler goes out with bells ringing. In Abbado’s Chicago recording the bells were wonderfully liberating and joyful, just as they should be for the return of day that Mahler was portraying. In Berlin someone really should have taken Abbado to one side and pointed out to him that bells more suited to the Kremlin have no place in this symphony. I know Abbado is a superb conductor of Mussorgsky, but this is the end of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony not the Coronation of Boris Godunov.

In all this is a thoroughly enjoyable and wholly recommendable version of Mahler’s Seventh. Abbado’s interpretation has a real sense of rightness about it. It steers an excellent, illuminating path between the astringent, radical, "modernist" views of Gielen (Hänssler 93030HV) and Zender (CPO 999 478-2) and the more central/interventionist ones of Bernstein (Sony SMK 60564), Tilson Thomas (BMG 09026 63510-2), Horenstein (BBC Legends BBCL 4051-2) and Kondrashin in differing degrees. Abbado, in the end, circles the work rather. He does this with distinction, it is true, but I prefer to get down on the ground and explore more. If all that about Abbado appeals to you then buy this new recording with confidence. You will not be disappointed, I assure you. However, if you can find a copy of Abbado’s first recording in Chicago then I think you will enjoy that one a little more and wonder why on earth it was felt necessary to make the same journey again.

Tony Duggan

See Tony Duggan's survey of Mahler Symphony recordings


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