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Gustav MAHLER (1860 Ė 1911)
Symphony no. 7 in b minor
SWR Symphony Orchestra, Baden-Baden and Freiburg/Michael Gielen
Recorded 19th Ė 23rd April 1993, Hans Rosbaud studio, Baden-Baden
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC 93.030 [79:25]

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Mahlerís 7th is generally thought of as the most problematic of his symphonies. Many people fight shy of it, and this is understandable; it is perhaps the most psychologically complex of the nine (or ten if you will). It has no clear-cut conclusion, and you wonít find here the religious affirmation of the 2nd and 8th, the sense of hard-won achievement of the 5th, or the uncompromising tragedy of the 6th. Indeed, it can be hard to know just how to feel at the end of the finale. The welter of sound is of course overwhelming, but, in the end, the effect is almost of exasperation. It is in many ways one of the composerís least successful movements, suffering from too many starts and stops and crashing changes of gear. A pity, because the first four movements are magnificent, and amongst the best things he did.

The work has inspired many fine recordings. Bernstein, Rattle and Abbado have all produced distinguished versions, while there have been historic performances from Horenstein and, in particular, Hermann Scherchen. The present recording was made in 1993, but was hard to come by until recently. Now Hänssler have reissued it, and it is without doubt an impressive contender, right up there with the best. Gielen is himself a fine composer, and has got right inside the sound-world of this symphony. All the orchestral effects come off superbly, and there is also great clarity, though there is nothing clinical or boxy about the sound. The orchestral playing is special; this is a well-balanced, virtuoso group, who understand Mahlerís music instinctively, and who play it with complete mastery, yet with a great sense of the wildness of the imagination and of the often wicked humour.

The great first movement is given a powerful and convincing reading. There are one or two quirks; Gielen has looked closely at the score, and sometimes interprets the string notes Ė for example those that accompany the opening tenor horn solo Ė as individual semiquavers rather than tremolando as is normally the case. This gives a strangely metronomic quality to music that usually shivers rather than stammers as it does here. One or two climaxes later in the movement find Gielen apt to rush them impetuously, but this is forgivable, arising as it does from his intense involvement in the music.

The two Nachtmusik movements are done wonderfully well, the first one containing notably fine playing from the principal horn. All the half-lights and subdued colours are captured to perfection. Similarly, the second Nachtmusik is exceptionally atmospheric; Mahler has created here one of his most disturbing movements, the chamber music serenading of woodwind solos and twanging mandoline alternating with moments of understated terror. The quicker moving, but no less eldritch Scherzo is given one of the finest readings Iíve heard, with the orchestra clearly revelling in the weird sounds Mahler calls from all sections. The flatulent gusts of tuba tone are particularly well recorded.

Despite my reservations about the finale, this performance of it held my attention. If anyone could convince me that the movement hangs together, Gielen could Ė but he canít! The booklet of notes makes a valiant attempt to suggest that we have here an example of Mahlerís sense of humour ("always controversial because always hilarious"). I retain my views intact, but have to say that I found this a superb reading of the work as a whole.
Gwyn Parry-Jones

Tony Duggan also though highly of this performance in his survey of recordings of this symphony

 


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