Jonathan Nott’s cycle with the Bamberger Symphoniker is nearing
completion, with only Symphonies 6 and 8, as well as Das
Lied von der Erde, remaining to be issued. The cycle has
been highly praised in many quarters, including on MusicWeb
International. Just about every review has lavished considerable
acclaim on the recorded sound, and those comments very much
apply for this newest SACD. Never have I heard such a splendid
recording of this symphony.
Once considered the incomprehensible “black sheep” of Mahler’s
oeuvre, the Seventh has certainly overcome that label, with
83 readily available recordings, including several in SACD format.
I own three of these: Zinman/Tonhalle, Gergiev/LSO and Tilson-Thomas,
and this is quite the best sounding SACD of the four. The Bamberg
Symphony’s performance is caught in a warm acoustic that allows
every dynamic contrast to register fully. The sound-field never
seems constricted by the many powerful climaxes, which have
a stunning impact and realism. The orchestral sound is rich,
yet transparent, clarifying Mahler’s often dense contrapuntal
texture. After repeated listening I was left marvelling at the
brilliance and originality of Mahler’s orchestration.
The marvellous sound is matched by top-notch orchestral playing.
The Bamberg Symphony play their collective hearts out, and their
technical mastery would be the envy of many more famous Mahler
orchestras. With the addition of informative liner-notes by
Ellen Kohlhaas, this should be my new number one recommendation.
Yet, it isn’t.
I listened several times, hoping more fully to understand and
connect with Nott’s interpretation. There is no doubt that Nott
knows this score: textures come across with diamond-like clarity,
and each climax registers fully. His sense of structure and
the long line is masterful. Every section of the orchestra plays
beautifully, even in the most difficult passages. Their collective
virtuosity seems fearless.
Aye, there’s the rub! Surely it was not Mahler’s intent that
the music always sound beautiful. In this symphony Mahler pushes
harmonic and tonal boundaries to their breaking point. He de-constructs
traditional forms. Differing music styles and forms are slapped
together without proper preparation or context, like some giant
musical collage. For example, in the first movement at Rehearsal
37, the music abruptly shifts from earthly struggles to a vision
of heaven. In performances conducted by Tennstedt (BBC Legends,
2007) and Abbado (his second recording, with the Berlin Philharmonic,
DG, 2002) this change is magical, a moment where the hair on
your neck stands up. Nott’s realization is certainly beautiful
but not magical, almost perfunctory. In the Scherzo, Mahler
savagely deconstructs the Viennese Waltz, rejecting any lightheartedness
for a dark, nightmarish atmosphere. Tennstedt’s London Philharmonic
woodwinds screech and howl, while the Bamberger’s playing is
so beautiful that darker elements of the scoring hardly register.
The Symphony’s neurotic, dark humour is underplayed. Time and
again, I wanted less manicured beauty and more harshness, more
strain, more pressing against technical and emotional limits.
The Rondo-Finale is a litmus test of sorts for the conductor’s
interpretive stance. Nott’s tempo seems slightly slow, perhaps
the more tidily to encompass the constantly shifting patchwork
of styles that is the music’s essence. But this is not tidy
music; its seams are supposed to show. The gruff humour and
exuberance are so over the top we want to laugh out loud. Nott
and the orchestra obviously enjoy the music but the performance
never takes flight, remaining stubbornly earthbound.
I wanted to love this recording. I hear this symphony as a perilous
journey from darkness and despair to an almost manic giddiness.
By making the journey safe and beautiful, Nott has missed the
heart of the work. For that, one need only turn to Tennstedt
David A. McConnell