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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 7 (1908) [78.11]
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
Rec. live, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 9-12 March 2005.
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY 821936-0009-2 SACD/CD [78.11]

Armed with my chunky 1909 Universal Edition score (Kleine Ausgabe) and Bernstein’s 1986 New York Phil. recording for comparison (both ‘live’ and both American) I’ve been treated to a voyage of (re)discovery through this vast symphony. This new recording rides high on the shoulders of its predecessors in this series – both the 2002 recording of Mahler’s 6th and the 2003 recording of the 3rd Symphonies having won Grammy awards. I can immediately say that this recording of the 7th has a big ‘wow!’ factor in the sonics department. If you were looking for multi-channel Mahler twenty years ago Lorin Maazel’s 1984 recording with the Wiener Phil was originally issued by CBS (now mixed to stereo only on Sony) as a surround-sound production using the controversial Calrec ‘Soundfield’ microphone if memory serves correctly. The San Francisco SACD sound wins for clarity and definition – hands down.

Bernstein’s opening is gritty and tense. The dotted, staccato rhythms are held in a relentless, sustained grip which promises some kind of fight to the death. Tilson Thomas has a different view. By comparison he is the man setting out on a journey, sometimes almost jauntily, with a blade of grass between the teeth – but never quite losing that Mahlerian sense of funereal foreboding. When the first ff tutti kicks in the point begins to sink in: this is all about narrative and contrast. Bernstein is wringing every accent and nuance from the score and we love him for that. Unfortunately by comparison he is somewhat scuppered by the DG sound, which by comparison with the new recording collapses into a narrow noisiness in the tuttis.

Given that the very last ounce of Mahlerian angst might count in Bernstein’s favour, I found myself returning more and more often, and with increasing satisfaction to the new San Francisco recording. There is no lack of dynamism and drama, and the incredible detail in the orchestration is etched into sparkling and gripping life. Just looking at the first movement: point to any part of the score, no matter how apparently small or insignificant the detail, and it’s there – audible, but always in balance. Inner voices and small subtleties are revealed and given their full function and value, which for me pays huge dividends. It’s like a great painting which has been cleaned for the first time in generations – restoring and renewing the sense of awe which such artistic achievement should engender, rekindling that raw sense of newness and discovery.

Moving on to the second movement, Nachtmusik, there is a little less distinction between the two versions in question. Tilson Thomas wins by the sheer refinement of sound he draws out of the orchestra: take the antwordend third horn – so quiet and distant, like the echo from across a deep valley or chasm. Listen also to the brass entry after that superb collapse in downward scales when the opening theme seems to be dashed to the floor in petulant panic – sheer magic.

In the third movement, Mahler’s ‘sounds of nature’ take on a nightmare quality, barking at us from between the pitch-black shadows between the pine trees. Bernstein’s version is good of course, but spoiled a little by a bad-tempered sounding timpani in the very opening. Tilson Thomas is full of quiet secrecy, building inexorably. The string glissandi are staggeringly well done, and from the gruff croak of the contrabassoon to the low flutes the players have all the discipline of a string quartet. It’s at moments like this that individual musicians can ruin a recording, but no-one here has excessive vibrato, a forced or ugly tone, dodgy timing or dynamics, or popcorn articulation.

The fourth movement, the second Nachtmusik, marked Andante amoroso is something of an emotional let-up. I was glad to hear the guitar for once, working a little like Renaissance continuo, a little temporal trick reinforced by the mandolin which pops out of the orchestral texture like a mechanical toy. Bernstein’s opening has the full-on Jewish pleading violin, his mandolin solos having possibly slightly less character, but no less presence. Again, the sound quality in loud tuttis strangely pinches the soundstage, moments in which the San Francisco orchestra expand with a seemingly endless reserve of sound. It’s also worth pointing out that there is absolutely no audience noise – only at the beginning of the final movement to we get a little hint of rustling and a distant cough. There is thankfully also no wild applause at the end. With the Bernstein recordings the ‘live’ performances would be patched up with extra takes, thereby cutting out excessive audience noise or instrumental bloopers. An invited audience would be placed around the orchestra to approximate the acoustic of a full hall and told to keep quiet by the maestro - yes, I was there once! I suspect that this recording might have had similar treatment, though with four recording days I’m sure there would have been enough material to choose from.

This Mahler 7th would be my current recommendation to anyone. The standard of playing and recording is superb throughout, it has the terrific advantage of being on a single disc, makes the best stereo version I know, and the multi-channel effect can at times be quite overwhelming. Tilson Thomas knows how to place the little Viennese touches perfectly: the waltzes really dance, and while he has the lightest of touches with Mahler’s many moments of playful charm the tuttis can, where required, be as hard as nails. He doesn’t impose a grand interpretation or huge ego onto the music, allowing the score to speak vehemently for itself. My only moan is that, sooner or later, I now know I am going to have to fork out for the other recordings in this set and have to put up with the missus’ comments: "but you’ve got a whole shelf-load of Mahler already…!" She pronounces it ‘Mailer’, which only makes it worse. It’s like a good Steinway piano – there always seems to be that little extra power in reserve, and even at full pelt the detail in the recording is staggeringly transparent. To me, Mahler’s orchestration and musical message never sounded so good, and that has to be worth the money.

Dominy Clements



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