Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 7 in E minor (1905-06, premiered 1908)
Bamberger Symphoniker/Jonathan Nott
rec. 11-15 July 2011, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Konzerthalle Bamberg, Germany
TUDOR 7176 [79:50]

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 or Abbado.
  David A. McConnell
Nott has missed the heart of the work.