Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 7 in E minor (1905) [77:31]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, Philharmonie im Gasteig, 8-9 March 2007. DDD/DSD Stereo/Surround
BR KLASSIK 403571900101 [77:31]

By accident or design, two high profile recordings of Mahlerís Seventh, both conducted by Mariss Jansons, have been released in recent months. His Oslo Philharmonic recording on Simax (PSC1271) has garnered praise in some quarters, but is going to have to beat the odds to compete with this one, which sports both SACD sound and the revered Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Jansons uses a new edition of the score, prepared by the International Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft, and whatever its innovations might be, he directs a performance that emphasises every detail, as if striving to make audible each minute amendment and correction.

The approach sits well with the superior audio quality. On one level, the recording functions as a catalogue of fascinating orchestral details, obscured in previous recordings by poorer orchestral standards and more homogenised sound reproduction. But it is not just the details that make Mahlerís Seventh an unusual work. Jansons also brings his interpretive clarity to the symphonyís unique structure. Other conductors - and Iím thinking of Bernstein and Rattle in particular - often treat the workís sprawling structure and wayward progressions as problems that need fixing or covering up. Their methods include faster tempos, less rubato, and emphasis on the excitement of the louder passages over the quieter meditative ones, so as not to lose the audience. Jansons takes the opposite approach. He does not apologise for anything he finds in the score. Rather, he goes to great lengths to ensure that every passage and every counterpoint is clearly articulated, skilfully phrased and propelled as if with an inner momentum.

The result demonstrates just what a revolutionary work the Seventh Symphony is, with its incongruous dance episodes, its evocative orchestration (guitar, mandolin, cowbell), its precisely notated string portamento, and its dizzying climaxes. Tempos are almost always on the slow side, which again emphasises the details at the possible expense of the whole. Adhering to Mahlerís notated rubato gives the composerís structural thinking its due. It is found wanting but Jansons never goes so far as to offer a purely sectional structure as an alternative; the immaculate details are always part of a symphonic argument, however flawed.

While the overall sound quality is extremely high, some sections of the orchestra benefit more than others. The string sound is particularly impressive: the intensity of the high violins, the presence and timbral variety of the violas and the agogic weight of the cellos and basses. It may well be that the most radical aspect of Mahlerís orchestration in the Seventh is his use of the strings. Its sound-world relies on a complex vocabulary of counter-intuitive doublings, chord spacings and bowings. The combination of high quality audio, world-class playing and forensic detail from the podium allows each of these curiosities to shine through. Things are slightly less clear from the back of the stage, and the percussion in particular often seems muffled, or at least not given the clarity that a studio recording would have been able to ensure.

Those, like me, who are more familiar with British and American orchestras performing the work may be surprised by the central European brass sound, which can be quite nasal and vibrato-laden. Even the bass trombone solo in the first movement has a pronounced wobble. It is an upward trajectory throughout the work for the brass. The opening solo for Tenorhorn in Bbí - presumably a Wagner tuba here rather than a euphonium - has a rich tone, but amazingly vie with the woodwind. The trumpets in the first movement struggle to synchronise in a number of important passages, and the horns are on the brash side. However, the horns more than redeem themselves in the solos of the second movement, while the trumpets come into their own in the finale.

In fact, the finale is the best part of this recording. The rondo structure withstands Jansonsí emphasis on detail better than the more complex structures of the earlier movements. His loyalty to Mahlerís notated rubato pays dividends, as there are many surprises in the tempo changes that would be lost in a more four-square reading. It remains a long and challenging movement, but Jansonís balances the expansiveness with a focused orchestral sound and a clear sense of direction. The result, in the closing pages, is a paradoxical sense of inevitability, the musicís goal apparently preordained, despite its remaining unconventional and unpredictable right up to the very last chord.

Although I have mixed feelings about this recording, it has a great deal to commend it. The standard of the audio is sufficiently high to appeal to the SACD buyers who would consider it for this reason alone. I would also recommend the disc to those who have heard the work and think they know it. I was in that boat and found myself continually surprised by Jansonsí many revelations. To those completely unfamiliar with the symphony, I would have reservations about recommending this recording, if only because the interpretation is so radical. But there is an admirable honesty about every interpretive decision Jansons makes, and by highlighting the many unusual details of the score, he demonstrates just what an innovative and unusual work it is. These are not the interpretive priorities of most performers approaching Mahlerís most problematic symphony, but Jansonsí advocacy, and his multiple recordings, may yet persuade other conductors to stop making excuses for it.

Gavin Dixon

A performance that emphasises every detail ... see Full Review