The Seventh is perhaps Mahler’s most flawed symphony. Written
in two distinct phases – the Nachtmusik movements in 1904,
the first, third and fifth movements in 1905 – the work inhabits
two very different sound-worlds. That said, in the right hands
any structural shortcomings can be minimised, presenting this
symphony as a coherent and convincing whole. I would refer listeners
to Tony Duggan’s thoughtful overview
of Mahler symphonies, in which he compares a number of recordings.
Here, I’ve chosen Claudio Abbado’s version of the Seventh
with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (DG 445 513-2) and Michael
Gielen’s with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden Baden und Freiburg
(Hänssler CD 93.030).
Under Zinman the
tenor horn that opens the first movement may seem rather light-toned
compared with Abbado’s, but there is a wonderful transparency
to the sound that is most welcome. Indeed, one of the strengths
of Zinman’s Mahler cycle is this emphasis on musical detail
and general lucidity. In an earlier review I used the analogy
of grime being removed from a painting, allowing the original
colours to shine through. Laudable, but that doesn’t address
the broader structural issues which, on the whole, Zinman
confronts very successfully. Only in his readings of the Third
and the Sixth (see review)
does this delight in the daubs draw attention away from the
The first movement
of the Seventh has many such details; Abbado allows
them to shine through, without ever sacrificing momentum or
emphasising the music’s joins and gear changes. Gielen is
perhaps the least successful in this respect, but he makes
up for that with a wonderfully spontaneous reading. This is
Mahler in Wunderhorn mode, a view that Zinman seems to share,
although it’s left to Abbado to hint at the darkness behind
these sunny tunes. That said, the Tonhalle play with breathtaking
beauty at times; just sample the passage that begins at 10:50,
where the beautifully blended orchestra – and, at 11.51, the
harp – are simply gorgeous.
more tingles to the spine as we move from the glade into the
gloom, every tiny orchestral detail laid bare in a recording
that surely sets new standards for this work. As good as the
refulgent DG sound is for Abbado, the RCA engineers strike
a much better balance between heft and transparency for Zinman,
with Gielen somewhere behind them both. Zinman’s more implacable
approach pays dividends as this movement comes to an end;
I found myself listening enthralled to those familiar tunes
which, in stereo SACD form, are rendered as never before.
Indeed, if this were a concert I would expect a sudden bustle
and a buzz of excitement in the hall.
The first Nachtmusik
unfolds at a leisurely 16:37 and 16:52 under Abbado and Gielen
respectively, with Zinman clocking in at just 15:50. Curiously,
it’s the latter who may sound a little slow, but then he does
take a much more expansive view of this music. The all-important
brass are just fine in all three recordings, although some
listeners may prefer the darker, more rounded, sound of the
Chicago instruments. But when it comes to ear-pricking touches
and rhythmic elan Zinman is way ahead of the field,
the Zurich band sounding as idiomatic as one could wish for.
That said, Abbado’s bigger-boned Chicago performance is hard
to resist, a prime example of this conductor’s well-known
affinity for these scores.
The scherzo, with
its ghostly timps, alarums and wild excursions, is one of
the oddest of Mahler’s offbeat creations. Abbado and his band
respond well to the music’s wall-eyed character, rhythms well
sprung throughout. One senses this is parody with a wry smile.
By contrast, Zinman is nervier, more in keeping with his darker
view of this movement which, ironically, sounds more like
nachtmusik than scherzo. For all the felicities of
detail here I prefer Abbado’s easier, more fluent, way with
this music. Gielen is also very effective here, perhaps closer
to the spirit of Zinman than Abbado, his timps and brass surprisingly
vehement at times.
The SWR band acquit
themselves well, always sounding committed and characterful,
if a little lightweight at times. At the the start of the
second Nachtmusik Gielen’s genial approach reminds
me so much of the much-missed Klaus Tennstedt; both men bring
to their music-making a generosity of spirit that never fails
to please me. Zinman may be a little inscrutable at times,
but he finds plenty of delicacy and rustic charm in these
familiar tunes. Indeed, the colours and textures of this chamber-like
movement have seldom emerged with such concert-hall realism.
It’s this sense of discovery and renewal that makes this cycle
so very rewarding.
That said, few
conductors are entirely successful in this – or any – Mahler
symphony. Zinman gets the Rondo-Finale off to a brisk start,
but he lingers a little too lovingly over some details, sacrificing
forward momentum in the process. It’s not a hanging offence,
but it does make the music sound more unwieldy than it otherwise
might. Switch to Abbado and there is a propulsive energy from
the outset, with little of the near stasis that threatens
Zinman’s reading. And for all the majesty the Zurich band
bring to those final perorations – bells clearly audible –
they are simply outclassed by their American counterparts.
And while Gielen is more purposeful here he can’t match Abbado
for sheer amplitude or Zinman for polish and refinement.
Even though this
Seventh doesn’t quite live up to early expectations
it still deserves enthusiastic applause. Zinman’s fresh take
on these scores is often revelatory and seldom less than interesting.
That he doesn’t succeed all the time matters not a jot, given
the epiphanies one encounters along the way. In many respects
this still strikes me as the most rewarding Mahler cycle of
recent years. Indeed, I’d say Zinman’s versions of the Second,
Fourth and Fifth are among the very best in the
Onward the Eighth!