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MAHLER: Symphony No.7  London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas RCA Red Seal 09026 63510 2

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If you are looking for a recording of Mahler's Seventh that stresses the expressionistic, modernist side to this work this recording may not be for you. If, however, you want a central interpretation that will last you longer than those which go in for thrills and effects you might look no further because what you will hear is a superb presentation of the exotic sounds and colours of this work that is never at the expense of the bigger symphonic picture.

Michael Tilson Thomas's interpretation of Mahler's Seventh Symphony is a near-perfect balance between the work's inner details and its outward form: heart balanced with head.

This latter point can be heard most strongly in the first movement where his unerring grasp of the difficult tempo relationships between each section never reduces things to the rag-bag of episodes it can sometimes sound under more interventionist hands. This movement has clearly been planned and thought through to a quite remarkable degree. Tilson Thomas does give himself enough space for us to hear the remarkable instrumental detailing, however. For example, I loved the ripe tenor horn of Ian Bousfield really "roaring", as Mahler asks, also the translucent texturing of the woodwinds against the strings in so many parts of the movement, and then the way Tilson Thomas achieves a welcome and unusually dark-grained quality to the lovely central 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. When he needs to, Tilson Thomas can be tough, driving the music 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, which I have heard them sound on other occasions, 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 the march brings real 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, with just enough air around the instruments, are undoubted allies in all this as they will remain right the way through the rest of the work. Grand and imposing, intimate and searching, this first movement is as near a complete picture of this remarkable piece as the bounds of symphonic argument can hold. You can also 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 solo accompaniments is most impressive. This is a 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 that is, for some, Mahler's "symphony too far". This is especially evident in the really idiomatic quality to the interludes that emerge with a really tawdry tone, slinky and feline.

The nightmarish third movement has the right amount of menace balanced by a veil of fantasy, though I do think Tilson Thomas might have been a little more abandoned, even taking into account his stress on symphonic balance. A very relative disappointment only, but after hearing recordings by Rattle and Scherchen, for example, anything is going to sound tame. This does not prevent Tilson Thomas and his orchestra presenting us with some splendid effects here, especially the col legno snaps of bows against strings. I also thought he showed rare understanding of the profound difference in the Trios of this movement, islands of uneasy calm in the dreamy maelstrom. In the lovely fourth movement, the second of the two Nachtmusik, the emphasis is on warmth and noble ardour, assisted greatly by emphatic portamenti from the strings which inject just the right amount of tension into the proceedings and also the impression that this is music out of an essentially sick society.

Too often the last movement's delivery spoils a performance of this work, but that is not the case here. To crown a performance of this triumphantly disjointed work the last movement must be given with absolutely no doubts as to its greatness otherwise it can sound out of place. It is good to report Tilson Thomas avoids this. Under him this is grand, warm, affirmative, essentially ceremonial music: the return to day Michael Steinberg points to in his notes where a spiritual journey out of darkness and into the light is rightly stressed across the whole symphony. This last movement also shows that Tilson Thomas knows when to smile - not always the case with Mahler conductors today. As with the first movement, Tilson Thomas shows an unerring sense of structural integrity with the whole knitting together, especially towards the end where the crowning of the work with bells is liberating and fulfilling.

With his consummate ear for the unique sounds of this work matched to creative restraint and structural integrity, all harnessed to great flair and concentration, Tilson Thomas delivers a new Seventh to treasure. Could we ask more ? Well, perhaps a "live" recording would have given us an extra touch of panache in the last movement, but that can be said of most studio versions. Though essentially a central view of the work, Tilson Thomas proves his approach pays great dividends. Warmly recommended in all departments.


Tony Duggan


Tony Duggan

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