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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 7 in E minor(1905) [80:28]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Michael Gielen
rec. live, Berliner Festwochen, 21 September 1994
TESTAMENT SBT 1480 [80:28]

Michael Gielen’s Mahler - as recorded for Hänssler - is always compelling. It’s also clear-eyed and purposeful, qualities that might not appeal to those who seek more volatility in these scores. That said, others - like me - will find his readings are a welcome antidote to the unmissable but overheated accounts of Leonard Bernstein and his excitable ilk. As Bruno Walter’s intuitive, resolutely unspectacular Mahler confirms, such a thoughtful approach doesn’t in any way diminish the impact of these complex and demanding scores. Indeed, starting with his unshowy Eighth (Sony) Gielen’s Mahler has become a valuable corrective for me - a palate cleanser if you will - and that’s precisely what I expected from this new Testament release.
In this live concert Gielen was standing in for an ailing Klaus Tennstedt, whose readings of this symphony - on EMI and BBC Legends - are among the finest in the catalogue. As for the Berliner Philharmoniker their Mahler recordings for Karajan - the pell-mellish Fifth has just been reissued on Blu-Ray Audio - are a mixed bag, although their performances for Abbado are more consistent in terms of execution and insight. If anything the latter’s Lucerne cycle takes these symphonies to another level, thanks to the almost superhuman playing of his hand-picked ensemble. Sonics aside that’s certainly true of their Blu-Ray of the Seventh (review).
As preparation for this review I listened again to Gielen’s Hänssler recording with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg - recorded just 18 months before - and was struck anew by the extraordinary passion and polish of this provincial band (review). The BP’s Tenorhorn at the start of the first movement is a trifle unsteady, but even more surprisingly the Berliners’ performance lacks the convulsive shake and shudder of the SWR account. It’s just too polite, and even allowing for the exigencies of a live performance the playing is far from secure.
Well, that is disconcerting, although in mitigation there are some wonderfully innig moments in this opener, which Gielen builds to a darkly emphatic close. The Testament sonics are very good, but Hänssler’s weighty sound, albeit brighter and quite forwardly balanced, is much more bracing; I find that extra zing - which is not at all fatiguing - brings out the acerbic elements of this score. That said, the Berliners play with impressive breadth, a trademark of Tennstedt’s Mahler both live and on record.
After that shaky start the first Nachtmusik is altogether more pleasing. The antiphonal horn-calls are nicely executed and the Berliners articulate this oddly jovial, wall-eyed music very well indeed. For sheer beauty of sound they surpass their country cousins, but not when it comes to the music’s compelling strangeness. Curiously, the risk-taking and the edge-of-the-seat playing heard on the Hänssler disc comes much closer to the arc and crackle of the live event than the Testament one. Yes, it really is that arresting.
The shadowy Scherzo is somewhat disappointing. I sense that the Berliners just aren’t as committed as they should be; moreover, as a reading Gielen Mk II doesn’t have the shape, heft and structural coherence of Gielen Mk I. Timings are pretty much the same, but the divergent results confirm that such comparisons are misleading at best and useless at worst. The Berliners give an uncharacteristically soupy rendition of the second Nachtmusik that glosses over its essential peculiarities. Despite some lovely wind and string playing it’s another victory for Baden-Baden und Freiburg.
It doesn’t stop there, for Gielen is simply breathtaking in his earlier account of the Rondo-Finale. It’s a well-judged and thrillingly apt end to this quirk-shot symphony, which demands to be despatched with maximum thrust and certainty. In fairness the BP do deliver at this point - the stentorian timps are magnificent - but hearing Gielen Mark I immediately afterwards is nothing short of a revelation. Intoxicating, turbulent and taken to the very edge Gielen’s SWR players deliver a finale that eclipses all others. Yes, the metropolitans bring more grace to Mahler’s dancerly tunes, but for a truly complete performance the rustics have it.
I trust that the Baden-Baden und Freiburg players - who are scheduled to merge with their Stuttgart counterparts in a controversial cost-cutting exercise - won’t take offence at being characterised as country bumpkins; it’s just a comparative device, for in effect they are the undisputed winners of this outwardly unequal contest. If anything, this Testament release has renewed my affection and respect for Gielen’s Hänssler cycle, which really should be on every Mahlerian’s already groaning shelves.
A good but rather uneven Seventh; no match for Gielen’s Hänssler version.
Dan Morgan  

Masterwork Index: Mahler 7

Tony Duggan's survey of recordings