Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 7 (1908) [77:10]
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Bernard Haitink
rec. 23 September 1983, location not specified but possibly Concertgebouw Amsterdam?
HDTT HDCD190 [77:10]
This recently issued CD makes available a fine concert performance of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony recorded on tape in an excellent transfer. While the reasons for using this particular performance are not stated, the quality is evident upon hearing. As a work which benefits from live recordings, the various details of the Seventh do not always emerge readily in studio recordings. Those familiar with Haitink’s discography of Mahler may be familiar with his Philips recording of the Seventh, which is available in a set and has been also issued separately; an earlier live performance of the work from 1969 is included in a fifteen-disc retrospective, RCO’s Anthology of The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Yet HDTT’s concert performance from a decade later complements those recordings in demonstrating Haitink’s mastery of the score.
The first movement is quite effective, with the tempos not only representing Mahler’s intentions well, but also reflecting the sense of drama that Haitink brings to the podium. The balances in the orchestra are effective, especially in the tutti passages at the recapitulation, where the blend of orchestral forces supports the complex sonorities that resolve at the end of the movement. If the quartal intervals suggest modernist tendencies on Mahler’s part, the sometimes disparate timbres require the clarity of presentation found on this CD. Thus, the sonorities involving snare drum and upper woodwinds – a sound that Shostakovich later used to good effect, take on a dissonant role in the play of forces that shift into a more conventional blend in the coda of the movement.
A similar sensitivity to timbre must be in place for the second movement, with off-stage sonorities creating part of the musical landscape of the first Nachtmusik. This is not a problem in the recording, which also reveals the clarity Haitink brought to the figuration which detracts from the work when rendered indistinctly. As the march proceeds, the percussion fits nicely into the sonorities. Later in this movement the brass seem, at times, edgy, but never in any extreme way. In fact, this movement demonstrates well the way Haitink’s mastery of this demanding score and serves to create a convincing whole.
Such mastery is apparent from the start of the Rondo-Finale, in which the energy he gives to the timpani passage at the opening helps to propel the movement forward. It is an exciting and satisfying conclusion to the entire work, which stands well with some of the finest recordings of this score. If Haitink distinguishes himself from other conductors in performing this movement, it may be attributed to the pacing he brings to it. The delicate passages that Mahler composed are never marginally rendered. Here they are truly soft and precise. The various diminuendos and crescendos encompass the full and appropriate dynamic range. This is especially the case with some of the fanfares that evoke sonorities from Die Meistersinger or, later, when Mahler calls to mind the exuberant final chorus from Entführung aus dem Serail. In the last episode of the Rondo-Finale, Haitink maintains a poised and solid tempo, without rushing to the conclusion. It has a parallel with the evenly-paced conclusion of the first movement, which is also satisfying because of such a thoughtful sonic representation of structure.
In Haitink’s hands the chamber-music passages of the second Nachtmusik offer both contrast and subtlety. His treatment of the winds and brass allows their colors to emerge clearly, while never obscuring the strings. In fact, some of the string-playing in this movement bears closer listening as it allows you fully to appreciate the details that emerge in this concert performance. While some conductors may simply increase the tempo in the second section, Haitink creates a sense of urgency with the articulations and the entrances. In this sense, the movement affords a repose similar to that found in the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, which provides the contrast necessary for setting up, as it were, the Finale.
With the Scherzo, the marking Schattenhaft, “shadowy” is apparent from the outset, as Haitink gives the piece a lighter touch than occurred in the movements that preceded it. With this approach, the performance has a welcome clarity that makes the textures transparent. The close harmony of the woodwinds in the middle section calls to mind the Klezmer-like writing in the third movement of the First Symphony, while the other popular-sounding motifs fit well into the larger structure. Haitink’s fluid tempos allow the piece to move to its conclusion with real finesse.
This performance has much to commend it, and the recording is of interest for its artisan qualities. The note on the tray card indicates that each disc is produced individually to assure the superb sound of the recording, and thus, the issues may contains some cosmetic blemishes, the “human touch” as the firm calls it. This is by no means a hindrance to the result, and the fine sound of the original taped recording has transferred well into this medium. More information about the processes involved is available at the HDTT website, which also offers a catalog of other releases issued on disc or available for download. The present recording certainly contributes a fine performance to the discography of Mahler’s works and, specifically, that of the Seventh Symphony.

James L. Zychowicz
A fine concert performance and a recording of artisan quality … see Full Review