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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 7 (1905)
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. 2008, Barbican Hall, London
ALTO ALC1409 [71:55]

No, this isn’t what you may think it is – a new Mahler Seventh Symphony from the prolific Valery Gergiev and his former orchestra, the London Symphony. Rather, it is a release on licence of the same recording issued by the London Symphony Orchestra’s own label. Quite why we have this reissue, I am not so sure, since you can still get copies of the earlier release, also at a bargain price, which was reviewed by my colleague, Brian Wilson on these pages.

Gergiev’s 2008 Mahler symphony cycle was a typically (for this conductor) rushed affair, of which I attended the First Symphony at the Barbican in January, as well as the Eighth in the final performances of the cycle at St Paul’s Cathedral six months later in the following July. Neither impressed me much, although to be fair the LSO had to contend with onslaught after onslaught of coughs from the January audience which clearly unnerved them in the hushed opening of the First Symphony, whereas in the Eighth, the notorious eleven second reverberation of the cathedral posed an interesting challenge for the listener; if you ever wondered what this symphony sounded like at the wrong end of a brandy bottle, then this live performance was the one for you, where snatches of vaguely familiar melodies suddenly came into focus amidst the aural haze of the noise elsewhere. That in both cases the results on CD were a huge improvement on what was experienced in concert, says much for the enormous skills of the recording engineers who, probably, also utilised the dress rehearsals wisely too. This Seventh Symphony is likewise a much more successfully sounding recording than usual from London’s Barbican Hall: full, rich and detailed.

Speaking about the symphony to Michael McManus in Gramophone Magazine in 2010, the conductor said: “It has a strange, unusual shape, which is the key to it. You have to work very hard at shaping it. This is not really about tempi – it’s more about working with light and shadow and different levels of power.” To which he added, “Conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 was for me the scariest project of all …. [when conducting it] I was charged with extra excitement, but also extra fear, like walking on a high wire. One wrong movement and you go down. I dread this symphony.”

Strange to report then, that his performances of the Seventh Symphony were, by and large, those which received almost universal acclaim from the press at the time who were otherwise divided on the merits of the performances of the other symphonies in his Mahler cycle. Indeed, Gergiev and the LSO were satisfied enough with the results to subsequently take the same work on tour to the USA in 2011.

Personally, I have to concur that on the whole this is a very good, if not great, performance. The whole thing opens impressively, broad and brooding, Gergiev relishing the symphony’s darker shadows, creating an atmosphere of almost ominous foreboding. He doesn’t quite escape the charge of not making the first movement sound episodic, as he then has to speed up for the second subject and its development, but his accelerando is so subtly done and so well executed by his players, that it convinces. In this performance of the Song of the Night, Gergiev’s vision is one of a darkness which is grim and oppressive and his first movement is a very fine achievement. Likewise, so is the central, nightmarish scherzo, which sounds more than usual as if it is influenced by the dark, fantastical humour of Mussorgsky, a composer with whom Gergiev has clearly identified in the past, the movement marked by Mahler as Schattenhaft (“shadowy, ghost-like”), a point seemingly relished by Gergiev and his players. Elsewhere, Gergiev can sometimes sound impatient with the music, in particular with the two Nachtmusiks, but as Leonard Bernstein once opined, “The minute we understand that the word Nachtmusik does not mean nocturne in the usual lyrical sense, but rather nightmare—that is, night music of emotion recollected in anxiety instead of tranquility—then we have the key to all this mixture of rhetoric, camp, and shadows.”

I think that, in the last analysis, the performances on this recording are somewhat brusque. In particular the second, marked Andante Amoroso, is a rather brisk Andante with too little amoroso. To some extent, there is a logic with that approach, since Gergiev then opens the final movement similarly at a fairly sharp lick, but too often in the later movements it seems as if the conductor is grabbing the score by the scruff of the neck and pulling it along, at the expense of seeking out the poetry in the shadows and letting the music blossom organically, as he did so successfully in the first movement.

So, overall, a qualified recommendation. This is a very well-played and finely recorded Mahler Seventh, of a fine, if not great, interpretation. At its advantageous price, with a decent essay by Gavin Dixon in the booklet, it’s worth considering, but does not displace my current favourite recordings in which I include Bernstein/NYPO (Sony), Tilson Thomas/LSO (RCA/BMG), Abbado/Berlin PO (DG), with Barbirolli/Hallé-BBC Northern SO (BBC Legends) in the ‘historical’ category, plus Barenboim’s ‘hyper-romantic’ version with the Berlin Staatskapelle (Warner) as a wild-card, a slightly different take on this ever-fascinating symphony.
Lee Denham

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