> MAHLER Symphony 7 Kondrashin [TD]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.7 in E minor (1904-5)
Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin
(Recorded "live" at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam 29th November 1979)
Remastering by Charles Eddi at Sofreson from a recording by NPS Radio
TAHRA TAH451 [72.24]


This release celebrates the tenth anniversary of Tahra. They couldnít have chosen better to celebrate such a milestone in a short history that has established them at the forefront of archive releases. Though if youíre thinking this is one of those recordings where you have to listen through painfully inferior audio to a performance from a time when standards of playing were less accurate than now you couldnít be more wrong. What we have here is a superb stereo recording from 1979 with one of the worldís greatest orchestras and conductors. Indeed, so good is the sound and playing that this qualifies as a straightforward new recording of Mahlerís Seventh to be considered alongside any other version in the catalogue. In keeping with Tahraís strict policy of only releasing material with the permission of the original artists and from master tapes or discs this is no bootleg or "air-check" either.

There is one aspect that does mark this recording out from other releases, though. It too goes to the heart of Tahraís philosophy as outlined in the notes. "When too much music-making appears "cold", the product of antiseptic recording studios, and the technical wizardry of microphone placement and digital mixing, itís perhaps healthy to discover, or rediscover, the "truth" of a concert." I certainly agree with that. What you will hear on this CD is a real concert hall balance, as if you are in a good seat in the centre of the hall surrounded by a well-behaved and attentive audience. The hall in question is, of course, also possessed of one of the finest acoustics in the world which has had a great influence in shaping the sound of the orchestra that bears its name. Mahler himself conducted the orchestra in this hall and from then on they have taken special pride in playing his music. So itís thrilling to hear the Concertgebouw Orchestra of 1979 in this work in this hall and in an interpretation so distinguished and distinctive as this.

A good example can be heard at the start of the second movement (Nachtmusik I) where the solo horns call to each other, embroidering the air with their strange harmonies. If you are only used to studio recordings you will be used to hearing the horns close in and you might, on first hearing this recording, be a little disappointed that they sound more distant than usual. But this is how you would hear them in a concert hall and it is how Mahler himself would have expected you to hear them too. Bear that in mind when you read criticism of a conductor departing from Mahlerís score markings in a studio recording. Mahler knew nothing of "re-mixing", "spot-miking" and balance engineers. He, the conductor, was his own balance engineer and in this case the real balance engineer is Kondrashin with those credited on the record sleeve apparently there to make sure that is what we get.

The liner notes give a good summary of the life of Kirill Kondrashin. One point in particular relates directly to the question of recording balance that I have just dealt with too. ĎÖhe could alter the sound of any orchestra by his control of orchestral dynamics and shades of sound. He was famous for his pianissimi, which then allowed him to then produce the most expansive fortissimi. Orchestras knew he would ask them to produce these extremes of sound and tone." This aspect is much in evidence right through but especially in the first movement where extremes of dynamics are most called for. Kondrashin saves up his real fortissimi for precisely when they are needed to press home the symphonic argument of a movement that can, under lesser hands sprawl rather, and this sets all the careful other gradations of dynamics so much more in context. I would suggest that a recording that was not balanced in quite this way would not have shown this to such stunning effect. I donít worship at the shrine of hi-fidelity for its own sake. My view is that music making comes first and that whilst good audio can certainly enhance a recordingís worth it is not the "be all and end all". However, when the quality or the particular nature of the audio actively assists in the quality of the music making, as I believe it does here, I think it should be celebrated and I do so gladly.

There are performances of Mahlerís Seventh where the conductor clearly sees the work from a 20th century viewpoint. Precursor of revolutions still to come in Schoenberg and his circle, and so accentuates the diversity, even the deformity, that can be heard in the music and made to dominate it. That the work is a parade of sounds that were new and revolutionary is without doubt. But some conductors then go on to accentuate this aspect to a more radical degree than others do. Gielen (Hänssler 93030HV), Rosbaud and Zender (CPO 999 478-2) spring to mind. Kondrashin is not in that camp. Rather he lets the particular quality of Mahlerís extraordinary sound palette emerge naturally, without unduly highlighting those radical elements. In that sense this is a very central performance, more in the tradition of Bernstein (Sony SMK 60564), Horenstein (BBC Legends BBCL 4051-2), Rattle (EMI CDC 7 54344 2) and Tilson Thomas (BMG 09026 63510-2) and just as brilliantly delivered as theirs. What he certainly does appreciate, as all great interpreters of this work should, is the crucial aspect of illustrating the contrast of day with night that is at the very core of this symphony and provides its fulcrum of tension right through.

The three central movements explore the various aspects of night and our attitudes towards them in detail. Such is the alertness that Kondrashin has to every twist of melody, every catch of rhythm, every juxtaposition of sound, that you never feel he is weighing the music down with too much gloom, which can happen when the conductor misunderstands Mahlerís overall aim. Night does not have to equal tragedy. He is greatly helped by having in front of him an orchestra that clearly knows the music well and so can feel secure in what they deliver. Listen to the close of the second movement and the way that the woodwind choir cluck and chatter their way to the close, every line clear and yet clearly listening to each other like the best chamber players. The third movement is more like a series of bad dreams rather than full-blown nightmare it can be made to be and is how I think it should be played. The waltz passages here flit across our imaginations like half-forgotten memories but the sudden obstacles that Mahler throws in do not jar too much. The fourth movement is quite quick (and even has a hint of Shostakovich in the night about it when the solo violin strikes up) but Kondrashin is still affectionate and warm, aware especially of the melodic line.

Framing the three wholly nocturnal central movements are a first and a last that are compelling and moving. The first conveys perfectly the kaleidoscopic quality of day mixing to night and also a real elegiac feel, especially in the magical central episodes where the music takes flight and Mahlerís excels himself exploring newly found sounds. The last movement at 15:24 is easily the fastest performance of the movement I have ever heard. Even the brilliant Hermann Scherchen (Music and Arts CD695) is over a minute slower than this in his Toronto recording. But such is the superb playing of the orchestra for Kondrashin that it never once appears to be rushed. This is mainly due to the fact that the orchestra manages to make every note tell and remain under firm control. But the movement certainly goes like a rocket and the result is very exhilarating and refreshingly light-hearted: very different to how you may be used to hearing it. Not for Kondrashin the ceremonial swagger and grandeur of Rattle or Abaddo, for example, this is witty and cheeky too, so you do crucially still get the kind of contrast with what has gone before that the movement needs to crown the work with the return of day. I wonder if a tempo like this would have been tried in the studio or is this one of those cases where orchestra and conductor agree to "go for broke" on the spur of the moment? I suspect this movement will be the main talking point among Mahlerians when this recording gets better known and I loved it.

Kondrashin was certainly no stranger to Mahler. His previous Mahler recordings made in Russia are quite hard to find and the orchestral playing out of the Mahler tradition. But here is a performance played by one of the great Mahler ensembles that is easy to find and should be heard by all Mahlerians and anyone convinced by the need to hear music played "live", as I am. The notes mention a recording of the First Symphony in the Dutch radio archives so let us hope Tahra can lay hands on that one too.

A superb performance of Mahlerís Seventh to be ranked with the finest but carrying an extra magic only "live" performance with realistic concert hall recording balance can bring.

Tony Duggan


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