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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony no.7 (1905) [78:52
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel
rec. Centro de Acción por la Música, Sala Simón Bolívar, March 2012
Track-List at end of review
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 1700 [78:52]

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 would 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 some 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 Entführung, the civic splendour of Die Meistersinger, and 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.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Masterwork Index: Mahler symphony 7

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]