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This recording was a January Recording of the Month
see review by Dominy Clements

Gustav MAHLER (1860 - 1911)
Symphony No. 7 in e, "Song of the Night" (1908) [78.11]
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. DSD, live, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, California, USA, 12 March 2005.
Notes in English, Français, and Deutsch. Photo of composer and musicians.
CD tracks 2.0 stereo. SACD Tracks 2.0 stereo and 5.0 surround. Hybrid SACD
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY 821936-0009-2 [78.11]

Comparison recordings:
Hermann Scherchen, VSOO, Westminster LP ..DG/Westminster 471 263-2; also [1953 mono ADD] MCA Millennium Classics MCD 80082; also [96/24 re-mastering] DG/Westminster
Hermann Scherchen, VSO ["1960" (1950?) live, mono ADD] AS Disk AS 302
James Levine, Chicago SO RCA RCD 24581
Pierre Boulez, Cleveland SO DGG 447 756-2
Leonard Bernstein, NYPO [ADD] Sony SMK 60564
Bernard Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw SO [live] PHILIPS DUTCH MASTERS 50 (9 CDs)

Mahlerís Seventh Symphony is generally regarded as his most difficult to conduct, the most difficult to listen to, and hence the least popular.

The form of the Seventh is, typically, somewhat strange. Depending upon your viewpoint, itís either a five movement symphony, or itís a three section symphony with the combined functions of the scherzo and the slow movement served by a "scherzo" flanked by two "nachtmusik" movements, the three together totalling nearly 40 minutes in this recording. It was with these two "nachtmusik" character-pieces that the work was conceived and with which composition of the work began, from the middle out so to speak. After their composition, they were "framed" by the first, middle, and last movements. Then in the finale Mahler writes some elaborate musical jokes satirizing Meistersinger, (there are odd moments from Bruckner and Mozart and his own Second Symphony, as well as his Eighth Symphony which he hadnít written yet) which have led some to think he was incompetent, others that he was mad, cynical, or just plain vulgar. Some describe the whole symphony as a nightmare, the complete opposite to the exultant optimism of the following Eighth Symphony, and also quite different from morbid but concrete tragedy of the preceding Sixth Symphony. And parts of the Seventh are just plain spooky.

Having written the two "nachtmusik" movements, Mahler came to a complete stop in the composition of this symphony, unable to proceed. Then one day it occurred that he was rushing about, late for an appointment, and hired a boatman to row him out to an island in a lake. As he relaxed into the boat, with the first dipping of the oars the first movement of this symphony first began to play through in his imagination. It was probably equally the idea of the island in the lake as well as the repeated motion of the oars which were suggestive. Within weeks the full symphony was sketched out and composition was under way again. Whether Mahler though of the complete symphony as two islands or five islands in a lake, of all of Mahlerís symphonies these movements lean on each other the least. There are virtually no themes, motifs or structures in common among them. Itís almost as thought Mahler wrote five unrelated orchestral pieces and programmed them to be played in order on one night.

But Mahler conducted this symphony several times and made some slight revisions so we may assume that he said just what he intended to say. The interpreterís problem is to allow each of these disparate elements to find its full expression while conveying a sense of logic and wholeness. Obviously Mahler felt these elements related to each other, belonged together. A conductor who cannot convince us of this has not done his job. However, it is very difficult to find words to analyze why a performance of this symphony succeeds or fails. All one can say is, "it works" or "it doesnít work."

Hence we might expect that opinions would be more diverse than usual as to which are the best performances of this particular Mahler Symphony. However it turns out that this is not necessarily the case. The Scherchen and various Haitink performances are have been very widely admired and for many years, while partisans of Bernstein naturally admire his performance. More recently the Boulez and, now, the Michael Tilson Thomas performances attract attention partly because this symphony makes the greatest use of the widest possible palette of symphonic sounds and the most modern high definition recorded sound is of great advantage.

James Levineís was the first performance to be issued on CD, and his unerring dramatic instincts and the superb playing of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra carried them through with great credit. It is not surprising that Scherchen and Boulez should be particularly successful at playing Mahler. Both have had extensive experience in twelve tone music, music where tonality is only one of many ways of vertically organizing notes. The twelve tone system is said by some to have been made inevitable by Mahlerís music. Many conductors are at some level still uncomfortable with Mahlerís innovations, whereas Scherchen and Boulez view Mahler as no more startling than Schubert or Mozart, and can concentrate on playing the notes just as written, avoiding facile solutions and approximations that other conductors might have required. Michael Tilson Thomas also has extensive experience with modern music; in particular he is one of the finest Stravinsky conductors of all time and no slouch at Villa-Lobos and Ives either.

Scherchenís 1953 recording with the VSOO was sold as a hi-fi demo disk, but many consider it the finest performance ever recorded. It wasnít really until Kubelik and Bernstein embarked on complete cycles in the late 1960s that the work was widely recorded. Scherchenís live recording on AS disk is listed as "1960" on the disk packaging, and as 22 June 1950 in René Trémineís Scherchen Discography; apparently this recording was also available temporarily on the Orfeo label. A third recording by Scherchen from 1965 made with the Toronto Symphony was available briefly without authorization of the Scherchen family and is no longer in print. Since evidently Bruno Walter never recorded the work, these Scherchen recordings are our clearest window into Mahlerís contemporary world, since Scherchen was in some ways as close to Mahler as Walter was. The interpretation is monumental, but unfortunately they are not among Scherchenís best rehearsed or best played performances.

I think of my knowledge of the German language as being quite limited, but if Iím starting to think in terms of German puns perhaps I know more than I think I do. Mahlerís description for two of these movements is nachtmusik. We know what Mozartís definition of nachtmusik was, a translation of the Italian serata or serenata, music of the evening, that is, relaxing music suitable for the background of pleasant diversion. But what Mahler has written is more like "nachmusik." There is no such word in German, but if there were it would mean something like "almost" music, or something beyond music, meta-music. This idea is not so far fetched as one might imagine when one considers that Viennese dialect is very careless, very slurred. Iím convinced Mahler heard Mozartís work referred to over and over again in Vienna as "Eine Kleine Nachímusik" and possibly the idea of nachmusik began to roll around in his imagination. Another "night music" precursor might lie in Verdiís music at the beginning of Aïda, act III, music suggestive of crickets and insects, setting the scene of a tropical evening* full of portent. Indeed, there are passages in these movements of Mahlerís which resemble insect sounds, or demented bird sounds, or some mad combination of both. But that is only a small part; the music moves on into bizarrerie of the most profound. After this music the next step, twelve tone composing, is all but inevitable. Is it then a coincidence that Schoenbergís first twelve tone composition (also including mandolin) was his Serenade?

In addition to his excellent Haydn and Sibelius, most of those recordings by Leonard Bernstein which I admire are of modern music; his recordings of Nielsen, Honegger, Stravinsky and Milhaud rank among the very finest. Since the Seventh is perhaps the most "modern" of Mahlerís symphonies I hoped this would be the exception to my general dislike of Bernsteinís Mahler Symphony recordings. Unfortunately I was wrong. I found his approach, as with the other symphonies, so unpleasant that I could listen to no more than a few minutes of each movement before I was forced to remove the disk from play. When I attempt to express just what is the problem, my first clue is given by the cover of the disk. Stokowski once said that conducting is "all done with the eyes." Bernstein has his eyes closed, his face in a rapt ecstatic expression. He is obviously having a wonderful time. But another conductor stated the very essence of conducting is that the conductor not feel emotions, that he remain objective, alert and in control, so that the emotion is produced mostly in the audience, not necessarily in the musicians. Recall when Kathleen Ferrier apologized to Bruno Walter for her "unprofessional" conduct when she broke down in tears while singing Mahler.

To my ear, Bernsteinís performance of this work has no temporal relationships; the notes are just played one after another with no apparent reason or structure. Itís somewhat like some of Glenn Gouldís slow staccato Bach performances where each note is detached from all the others and there is no flow. Itís no wonder Gould and Bernstein didnít get along personally, at times they both tried to do the same thing the same way and, like two chefs, got totally in each otherís way. But if you like Bernsteinís approach to Mahler, you probably already have those recordings and you will probably not like anybody elseís approach, so you arenít likely to care for Michael Tilson Thomas either. Tilson Thomas may have taken some lessons from Bernstein, but is utterly unlike him in style.

Immediately after listening - or more correctly attempting to listen - to the Bernstein I put on the Haitink recording. The difference was night and day even though the tempi were virtually the same. Each note in the Haitink performance is a word of a sentence in an eloquent narrative; you are pulled along, gradually lifted up, settled down, stopped for a minute then started up again. The virtuosity of the orchestral playing, their ensemble and sense of commitment are breathtaking. This is not surround sound but what a good four channel decoder is able to do with this two channel master is extremely credible. The music moves inexorably along its appointed course to a shattering conclusion, at the end leaving the Dutch audience on their feet shouting. Even in SACD sound, can Tilson Thomas surpass this? No.

Michael Tilson Thomas gives us a very, very fine performance of this symphony and his engineers deliver a brilliant wide range low distortion recording. This is an excellent performance, a very fine performance, an astounding performance, particularly in the third movement. But in every way the Haitink is just a tiny bit better**. The problem is that to get the Haitnik performance you have to buy 9 CDs of "Christmas Mahler Concerts," or would have to buy if the disks were still available commercially, but the only way to buy the set now is directly from a website in Holland. If all this is too formidable for your collectorís mania, settling for the Michael Tilson Thomas performance will be an extremely comfortable second best. You will never regret buying this recording.

So far the Michael Tilson Thomas San Francisco Symphony Mahler cycle has done all of the completed symphonies except the Eighth. In this series the purely instrumental works have come off best, the Sixth best of all, with some sort of problem in each of the works with solo vocal. Choral performance was excellent in the Second symphony, so I look forward to their recording of the first movement of the Eighth. It is in part two of the Eighth where I would be concerned. But I hope that my fears turn out to be completely unfounded; I hope to be overwhelmed.

I am grateful to Professor H. F. Redlich of the University of Manchester Faculty of Music for valuable insights expressed in his essay to accompany the Eulenberg edition of the miniature score. I do however disagree with his characterization of the distant cowbell sound in Mahlerís Sixth and Seventh Symphonies as describing "extreme loneliness." The image I receive from this sound is of a view from a high place overlooking a verdant valley with farms, cows, crops, streams; and, in the distance, high snow covered mountains. But ó no humans except the observer. In other words, the sound of the distant bells symbolizes the overwhelming spaces and grandness of Nature perceived in solitude. It reminds me of a time when I sat on the edge of the Grand Canyon in Arizona with no one else around*** and listened to the very quiet sounds of the birds flying by, a snake crawling by, tiny sounds which all but masked the distant roar of the mighty river a mile below me. To me this is solitude, yes, but not loneliness. This is as close as one can get to the sense of participation in the natural world, and I felt the presence, perhaps even the companionship, of the living nature spirits. And Mahler was at least as crazy as I am.

*A Doctor of Music friend insists that this evening music is the greatest music Verdi ever wrote, that it shows true creativity, whereas he considers merely writing tunes is a vulgar pastime barely worthy of note.

**It turns out that the first recording review I ever published was of Haitinkís very first recording on the strength of which I predicted that he would one day be reckoned among the great conductors of our age. Itís nice to be proven right. (When he let me go, the editor complained of me that I was afraid to take risks.)

***Solitude at the Grand Canyon is a generally impossible condition as this is one of the most crowded places in North America. It happened that in 1963 I managed to slip into the parkís North Rim section before official opening when the staff were assembling prior to opening the hotel, and someone had left the main gate ajar.

Paul Shoemaker

 

 



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