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Symphony No.7 in E minor (1906) [79:17]
Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jirí Stárek
rec. live, DKO Jihlava, Czech Republic, 19 September 2008
ARCO DIVA UP 0112 - 2 131 [79:17]
This performance was given in Prague one hundred years to the
day since, in the same city, Mahler conducted the first performance
of his Seventh symphony. As Rob Maynard pointed out in an earlier
review, that’s not made remotely obvious in the documentation
accompanying this CD. The disc has been issued, presumably,
as a souvenir of the centenary performance.
The Seventh is, by general consent, the most elusive of Mahler’s
symphonies and even now it’s probably the least frequently heard
in the Mahler canon. It’s not an easy work to comprehend and
in it Mahler continues to experiment with orchestral sonorities,
including the use of a guitar and a mandolin in the fourth movement.
To do it full justice requires a virtuoso conductor and orchestra
and, candidly, Jirí Stárek and the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra
are not quite in that class.
Their performance is rather undermined by the recording. The
microphones seem to have been placed quite close to the orchestra
and as a result the recorded sound is very up-front. One has
little sense of space around the players. Furthermore, the recording
is cut at quite a high level and I found I had to adjust downwards
the volume control on my equipment. Whether the engineers or
the performers – or both – are to blame I heard insufficient
light and shade: indeed, I’m pushed to remember one genuine
One has the sense that the orchestra is being pushed to its
limits by Mahler’s demands and there were several instances
where I detected flaws in the playing. One such was at 12:26
in the first movement where the wash of sound from the harp
that leads into the radiant B major episode on the violins goes
for nothing. I wondered if this was a flaw in the recording
but just a few bars later the harp part is perfectly audible,
leading to the suspicion that the player fluffed the cue.
Lest it be thought that I’m making unreasonable comparisons
with studio recordings where there is every chance to balance
the sound to perfection and to edit and re-take, I should say
that I haven’t listened to a single such recording while evaluating
this disc. Instead my comparisons have been with two other concert
performances, both from BBC Legends. One is Klaus Tennstedt’s
incandescent 1980 performance (see review)
and the other, directed by another great Mahler conductor, is
Jascha Horenstein’s 1969 account (BBCL 4051-2), which, like
Duggan, I rate very highly. It has to be admitted that the
Horenstein performance is not preserved in the best sound and
that the playing of the New Philharmonia can be fallible. Again,
some may find Tennstedt’s way with the symphony rather wilful
but both these recordings have far more insights than Stárek
achieves and both are far more compelling as interpretations.
The Tennstedt performance is by far the best played of the three.
The second movement, the first of the two Nachtmusik
movements, is a disappointment in this Czech performance. The
echoing horn-calls at the start lack any real sense of mystery
– everything is balanced too close. Again, when Mahler introduces
cowbells - they are first heard at 6:01 - the bells are far
too prominent and insistent: should they not be heard as from
a distance, evoking memories rather than actualities? Throughout
this whole movement I felt that everything was in the foreground
and that factor underscores Stárek’s rather matter-of-fact style.
This music is supposed to be a night march – Mahler himself
suggested Rembrandt’s celebrated painting, The Night Watch
as a point of reference – but there’s not much trace of that
in this reading. I thought the performance was prosaic.
The third movement, a scherzo, carries the marking ‘Schattenhaft’,
which Michael Steinberg translates as “like a shadow” or “spectral”.
That’s not really apparent here, though whether it’s the performance
or the engineering that’s to blame I’m unsure. The performance
lacks light and shade and in the trio section I didn’t really
feel there was much charm or ‘give’. Parts of the movement are
quite successful, however, and Mahler’s deliberately grotesque
orchestration from 6:00 onwards is well realised.
The forward recording militates against atmosphere in the second
Nachtmusik, the Andante amoroso and both the guitar
and mandolin are more to the fore than one is accustomed to
hearing. In the more ardent passages Stárek encourages his violins
to sing out to good effect. The exuberant, wild rondo finale
gets a largely extrovert reading, which is perfectly in keeping
with the music. However, Mahler’s scoring – and the writing
for brass in particular – is often pretty potent and the close
recording makes the orchestra sound strident at times. I found
the recorded sound somewhat wearing.
I’m sure this was a memorable occasion in the concert hall –
the audience is vociferous in its appreciation – but I’m not
sure that the performance really stands up to repeated listening.
If you want a live recording of Mahler’s Seventh then I think
you would be better served by investing in one of the two BBC
Legends recordings that I’ve mentioned above. This Stárek version
doesn’t seem to me to be in the same league. Having said that,
my colleague, Rob Maynard was much more impressed and, indeed,
made this one of his Recordings of the Year for 2009 so readers
should certainly refer to his review
see also review
by Rob Maynard
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