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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 7 in E minor (1905)
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman
rec. 22-25 September 2008, Tonhalle, Zurich, Switzerland
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 88697506502 [78:32]
Experience Classicsonline

The Seventh is perhaps Mahler’s most flawed symphony. Written in two distinct phases – the Nachtmusik movements in 1904, the first, third and fifth movements in 1905 – the work inhabits two very different sound-worlds. That said, in the right hands any structural shortcomings can be minimised, presenting this symphony as a coherent and convincing whole. I would refer listeners to Tony Duggan’s thoughtful overview of Mahler symphonies, in which he compares a number of recordings. Here, I’ve chosen Claudio Abbado’s version of the Seventh with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (DG 445 513-2) and Michael Gielen’s with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden Baden und Freiburg (Hänssler CD 93.030).

Under Zinman the tenor horn that opens the first movement may seem rather light-toned compared with Abbado’s, but there is a wonderful transparency to the sound that is most welcome. Indeed, one of the strengths of Zinman’s Mahler cycle is this emphasis on musical detail and general lucidity. In an earlier review I used the analogy of grime being removed from a painting, allowing the original colours to shine through. Laudable, but that doesn’t address the broader structural issues which, on the whole, Zinman confronts very successfully. Only in his readings of the Third (see review) and the Sixth (see review) does this delight in the daubs draw attention away from the larger canvas.

The first movement of the Seventh has many such details; Abbado allows them to shine through, without ever sacrificing momentum or emphasising the music’s joins and gear changes. Gielen is perhaps the least successful in this respect, but he makes up for that with a wonderfully spontaneous reading. This is Mahler in Wunderhorn mode, a view that Zinman seems to share, although it’s left to Abbado to hint at the darkness behind these sunny tunes. That said, the Tonhalle play with breathtaking beauty at times; just sample the passage that begins at 10:50, where the beautifully blended orchestra – and, at 11.51, the harp – are simply gorgeous.

Zinman brings more tingles to the spine as we move from the glade into the gloom, every tiny orchestral detail laid bare in a recording that surely sets new standards for this work. As good as the refulgent DG sound is for Abbado, the RCA engineers strike a much better balance between heft and transparency for Zinman, with Gielen somewhere behind them both. Zinman’s more implacable approach pays dividends as this movement comes to an end; I found myself listening enthralled to those familiar tunes which, in stereo SACD form, are rendered as never before. Indeed, if this were a concert I would expect a sudden bustle and a buzz of excitement in the hall.

The first Nachtmusik unfolds at a leisurely 16:37 and 16:52 under Abbado and Gielen respectively, with Zinman clocking in at just 15:50. Curiously, it’s the latter who may sound a little slow, but then he does take a much more expansive view of this music. The all-important brass are just fine in all three recordings, although some listeners may prefer the darker, more rounded, sound of the Chicago instruments. But when it comes to ear-pricking touches and rhythmic elan Zinman is way ahead of the field, the Zurich band sounding as idiomatic as one could wish for. That said, Abbado’s bigger-boned Chicago performance is hard to resist, a prime example of this conductor’s well-known affinity for these scores.

The scherzo, with its ghostly timps, alarums and wild excursions, is one of the oddest of Mahler’s offbeat creations. Abbado and his band respond well to the music’s wall-eyed character, rhythms well sprung throughout. One senses this is parody with a wry smile. By contrast, Zinman is nervier, more in keeping with his darker view of this movement which, ironically, sounds more like nachtmusik than scherzo. For all the felicities of detail here I prefer Abbado’s easier, more fluent, way with this music. Gielen is also very effective here, perhaps closer to the spirit of Zinman than Abbado, his timps and brass surprisingly vehement at times.

The SWR band acquit themselves well, always sounding committed and characterful, if a little lightweight at times. At the the start of the second Nachtmusik Gielen’s genial approach reminds me so much of the much-missed Klaus Tennstedt; both men bring to their music-making a generosity of spirit that never fails to please me. Zinman may be a little inscrutable at times, but he finds plenty of delicacy and rustic charm in these familiar tunes. Indeed, the colours and textures of this chamber-like movement have seldom emerged with such concert-hall realism. It’s this sense of discovery and renewal that makes this cycle so very rewarding.

That said, few conductors are entirely successful in this – or any – Mahler symphony. Zinman gets the Rondo-Finale off to a brisk start, but he lingers a little too lovingly over some details, sacrificing forward momentum in the process. It’s not a hanging offence, but it does make the music sound more unwieldy than it otherwise might. Switch to Abbado and there is a propulsive energy from the outset, with little of the near stasis that threatens Zinman’s reading. And for all the majesty the Zurich band bring to those final perorations – bells clearly audible – they are simply outclassed by their American counterparts. And while Gielen is more purposeful here he can’t match Abbado for sheer amplitude or Zinman for polish and refinement.

Even though this Seventh doesn’t quite live up to early expectations it still deserves enthusiastic applause. Zinman’s fresh take on these scores is often revelatory and seldom less than interesting. That he doesn’t succeed all the time matters not a jot, given the epiphanies one encounters along the way. In many respects this still strikes me as the most rewarding Mahler cycle of recent years. Indeed, I’d say Zinman’s versions of the Second, Fourth and Fifth are among the very best in the catalogue.

Onward the Eighth!

Dan Morgan




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