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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 7 in E minor (1905) [79:55]
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 28-30 September 2016, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Reviewed as a 16-bit press download (see DSD update below)
RCO LIVE RCO17006 SACD [79:55]

I’m not a fan of Mariss Jansons in general, or his Mahler in particular, but age and intimations of mortality have a habit of rearranging a conductor’s musical priorities. In the past, I’ve found Jansons too fastidious – he micromanages his players – and while his performances are usually decent, they’re seldom remarkable. That’s certainly true of the Mahler Second, Third and Eighth in the RCO Live box of Blu-rays I reviewed in 2013. However, I was rather taken with his Amsterdam Fifth from 2007/8, whose virtues I touched upon in my review of his Munich remake, recorded in 2016. I’ve yet to hear his other Concertgebouw account, included in a 13-CD Dutch radio set reviewed by Michael Cookson.

Revisiting those RCO and BRSO Fifths, I was struck by Jansons’ more expansive, less controlling approach to the music, which, for once, strays from well-worn tracks into new and potentially interesting territory. In short, they have personality, a rare commodity in his earlier recordings of Mahler and, indeed, of other composers. Among the latter is his much-vaunted Tchaikovsky cycle, recorded with the Oslo Philharmonic in the 1980s; it veers between superb (Symphony No. 2) and idiosyncratic (Capriccio Italien). This lack of consistency is another reason I’ve not warmed to the impish Latvian. That said, a preliminary listen to this new Mahler Seventh – on New Year’s Day, no less – was most encouraging.

Over the past decade, Jansons has taken to re-recording certain works with both the RCO, of which he is now conductor emeritus, and the BRSO, where he’s chief conductor. That seems extravagant, as the Mahler Fifths demonstrate; the orchestras sound different, but the readings are very similar. Curious to discover whether that’s true of his RCO and BRSO Sevenths, I downloaded a 16-bit copy of the latter from eClassical (beware, no booklet). In passing, I noticed Gavin Dixon reviewed the SACD in 2009. Both albums were recorded in concert, and there’s no applause in either.

Jansons’ Bavarian version, which dates from 2007, is certainly taut and clear, the all-important B-flat tenorhorn decent enough, but I don’t care for his oddly parenthesised approach to the first movement. Still, there’s a leanness to both the performance and the sound that will appeal to those who like their Mahler ‘straight’. In this case, though, it just means dull, the symphony’s quirks and quiddities much less pronounced than I’d like. Factor in rhythmic rigidity and a surprising lack of incident and it’s no wonder progress is so fitful and interest wanes so fast. This may have been recorded in the same year as that RCO Fifth, but it has little of the latter’s warmth, insight and overall coherence.

As expected, the dancing figures in the first Nachtmusik are just too unyielding, and the central Scherzo, although neatly done, lacks contrast and character. As for the second Nachtmusik – complete with murky mandolin – it’s episodic, the Rondo-Finale both random and rhetorical. Really, this performance encapsulates everything I dislike about Jansons’ conducting. I refrained from reading Gavin’s review until I’d heard this recording for myself. While we agree on some things – the less-than-ideal sound, for example – we are at odds on most others.

Nine years separate Jansons’ two Sevenths, but they are, in fact, light years apart. First off, I was bowled over by Polyhymnia’s full, vibrant recording; even on this CD-quality download, the bass drum has thrilling presence, and the tenorhorn – beautifully played and superbly balanced – is simply glorious. And while Gavin commended the Bavarians for their fine playing, I’m afraid their Dutch counterparts are in another league entirely. As interpretations, the gulf is even wider, the Amsterdam performance filled with unexpected nuance and colour; indeed, the Munich one seems prosaic/anaemic by comparison. Most important, there’s affection here – that elusive personality, perhaps – and the musical rewards are immense.

Gone are those irksome brackets and frustrating fussiness, now replaced by natural phrasing and a newfound spontaneity that’s nothing short of a revelation. Also, the architecture of the piece is laid bare in a way it wasn’t before; not only that, tempo relationships and thematic transformations are more deftly managed. As for the RCO, their deeply felt response to this music adds immeasurably to one’s sense of delight and discovery.

Take the opening movement, for example; I found myself on tenterhooks much of the time, just waiting for the next in a string of epiphanies.

The first Nachtmusik has all the forensic detail that Gavin noted in Munich, but this time it’s complemented by a real sense of engagement. The depth and timbral sophistication of this recording are especially welcome here, as they unveil a now subtle, now startling swatch of colours. Not only is the music-making of premium quality, it has a looser weave, a more generous cut, that’s most appealing. Sartorial metaphors notwithstanding, Jansons is uncommonly responsive to the elliptical nature of this strange interlude. Dynamics are much better judged, and he inflects rhythms in a very natural and disarming way. The woodwinds deserve special mention, for they play with rapt loveliness.

Jansons’ way with the central Scherzo is similarly assured, its witty echoes and sly asides delivered with a mix of ease and insight. Astonishing as it may seem, he digs deeper and reaches further than most of his rivals at this pivotal point. There are so many telling touches here – the timps and lower strings are nicely rendered – and the violin and mandolin passages in the second Nachtmusik are much better played and balanced here than they were in Munich. Even more remarkable, the fine performance and exemplary engineering conspire to create a compelling awareness of music being caught on the wing; and while that’s rare in itself, it’s almost unheard of in Jansons recordings I’ve encountered to date.

As some conductors age they get slow and self-indulgent – Leonard Bernstein comes to mind – but as I discovered in my recent review of the octogenarian Bernard Haitink’s BRSO Bruckner Sixth, that’s not inevitable. Jansons, ‘only’ in his seventies, proves the point with a slam-dunk finale that would surely bring an audience to its feet. (I hope it did.) No ramble or rhetoric here, just a varied, powerful and properly focused sign-off that makes sense of everything that’s gone before; in this weird, wall-eyed symphony, that’s really quite rare. And full marks to producer/engineer Everett Porter and his team for such a magnificent recording. I can’t wait to hear the SACD or high-res download.

A performance of pronounced character and contrast; is this a game-changer for Jansons?

Dan Morgan

Update: since posting this review I've listened to the stereo DSD128 download from NativeDSD. As expected, the sonic virtues detected in the 16-bit version are even more apparent here. Indeed, Polyhymnia's recording, one of the finest I've heard in ages, is the perfect complement to this remarkable performance. Huzzahs all round!


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