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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
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]

Experience Classicsonline

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 pianissimo.
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 Tony 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 as well.
John Quinn

see also review by Rob Maynard


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