I was stunned when I heard the cheers and applause burst out at the end of
this CD; not because it was unmerited, but because I hadn’t realised it was
a live recording until then. It is hard to believe that playing so close to
perfection in every detail could be achieved in a live performance; but it
clearly was — even if some discreet ‘patching’ was done afterwards. The
recording itself is of the highest possible standard too, faithfully
capturing all those details in Mahler’s sensational orchestration, but also
fully equal to the massive, teeming climaxes.
You’ll have gathered, then, that this is quite an issue. I’ve always loved
this work, and my feeling could be summed up by saying that I felt it
have been Mahler’s greatest symphony – but for the finale.
That mad, sprawling patchwork of a movement seemed to me to betray a lack of
concentration and self-criticism on the part of the composer. OK, ‘the
symphony must be like the world’, and all that, but let’s at least clear
of the rubbish off the streets first.
Suffice to say, this recording has for me changed that long-held
judgement. Gustavo Dudamel responds to the challenge magnificently, and, in
the finale, takes us on a wild roller-coaster ride. There is a sense of
carnival-time about the entire movement, and it seems to encompass the whole
of Austro-German musical history up to that point – the dynamic counterpoint
of J.S. Bach, the ‘Turkish’ ebullience of Mozart’s Die
, the civic splendour of Die Meistersinger
so on. To say the least, it’s thrilling, compelling. Those cheers may have
been a surprise, but I had to join in.
What of the rest of this amazing work? The symphony works its way to that
finale from a colossal first movement, through two Nachtmusik
movements on either side of a scherzo. It’s these three central movements
that have given rise to the work being sometimes known as ‘Song of the
Night’, which is not Mahler’s soubriquet. That said, it is not an
unjustified nick-name, as even the first movement has a nocturnal feeling in
its opening and many of its episodes. It’s only in the finale that we
finally emerge into the daylight.
Dudamel’s reading of the first movement is powerful; the opening stutters
and sulks, the tenor tuba — superbly played here — cries out in heroic
agony. The way the conductor steers the music by a perfectly judged
accelerando into the headlong Allegro risoluto
is simply masterly.
Some may say that Dudamel’s tempo is too quick for the ‘non troppo’ proviso;
all I can say is that it works, and feels absolutely right. At the heart of
this movement, mysterious trumpet fanfares usher in a passage of moonlit
beauty, one of the finest in Mahler. Equally memorable though is the sudden
bipolar descent into despair, the tenor tuba’s solo replaced by groaning
double bass and menacing trombone.
Dudamel’s first Nachtmusik
captures perfectly the furtive humour
of this ‘night-march’, with its echoes of Marschner’s folk-inspired music.
The word for the Scherzo that follows – certainly one of Mahler’s greatest
inspirations – is ‘eldritch’. It is simply one of the most brilliant
demonstrations of the art of orchestration; the opening describes ‘things
that go bump in the night’; sighs of horror from the violins, bats flit
about in the dark, cobwebs quiver uneasily.
The lovely second Nachtmusik,
full of arching violin solos and
tremolo mandolin, tries to exorcise this mood with its gentle serenade; but
it too is haunted by moments of Panic fear. This movement, so delicate in
its chamber orchestra scoring, meant an enormous amount to the young guns of
the Second Vienna School, and Schönberg’s First Chamber Symphony was
completed two years after the première of this Seventh. The music fades away
quietly and rather sadly; a reverie brutally interrupted by that manic burst
of timpani that ushers in the finale – time to fasten your seat-belts, it’s
a bumpy ride.
Through all of this, I have to say that no praise can be too high for the
orchestral playing, for this is an immensely taxing work, as technically
difficult as it is physically exhausting. The string sound is always richly
beautiful, all the woodwind characterise their solo moments with great
imagination, and the brass players seem to have superhuman lungs and lips.
The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra has now surely to be regarded as one of
the finest in the world.
This is a great recording; if there is a better – or let’s say equally
brilliant - Mahler Seventh around, I have yet to hear it.
Masterwork Index: Mahler
Langsam – Allkegro risoluto ma non troppo [22:12]
Nachtmusik. Allegro moderato [16:14]
Scherzo. Schattenhaft [9:30]
Nachtmusik. Andante amoroso [13:00]
Rondo-Finale. Allegro ordinario [17:55]