Mahler's Symphony No 7
The Gramophone Choice
Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Claudio Abbado
DG Masters 445 513-2GMA (79‘ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Abbado’s account of Mahler’s Seventh was always a highlight of his cycle and remains the ideal choice for collectors requiring a central interpretation in modern sound. Steering a middle course between clear-sightedness and hysteria, and avoiding both the heavy, saturated textures of 19th-century Romanticism and the chilly rigidity of some of his own ‘modernist’ peers, he is, as the original review reported, ‘almost too respectable’. That said, it’s all to the good if the forthright theatricality and competitive instincts of the Chicago orchestra are held in check just a little. Even where Abbado underplays the drama of the moment, a sufficient sense of urgency is sustained by a combination of well-judged tempi, marvellously graduated dynamics and precisely balanced, ceaselessly changing textures. For those put off by Mahler’s supposed vulgarity, the unhurried classicism of Abbado’s reading may well be the most convincing demonstration of the music’s integrity. This is a piece Abbado continues to champion in concert with performances at the very highest level.
London Symphony Orchestra / Valery Gergiev
LSO Live LSO0665 (72’ · DDD/DSD). Recorded live 2008. Buy from Amazon
For some, Valery Gergiev’s dark, pumped-up Seventh might prove to be the high-point of his Mahler cycle. True, the over-the-barricades manner precludes much in the way of subtlety but it does hold in tight unity a score that can sprawl into incoherence. Much is paced a notch faster than usual, though not the introduction which is spacious and strong. The playing is consistently assured; the sound powerfully immediate. The reading has a monolithic drive that is nothing if not distinctive.
What Gergiev doesn’t deliver is a sense of this music’s teeming inner life. No point looking here for either Claudio Abbado’s delicate attention to line and colour or Leonard Bernstein’s emotive, micro-managed rubato. Gergiev’s inner movements come across as diligent but brusque. While his idiosyncratic seating arrangements (including antiphonal violins) make for some interesting effects, it’s the resilience of the LSO brass at high decibels you’re likely to remember, not the meaningful interplay of independent and interdependent strands.
The applause which greeted this performance at London’s Barbican Hall has been surgically removed for this hybrid SACD incarnation. The critics will be as divided over its merits as they were following the live performance. Happily, LSO Live’s competitive pricing means you can decide for yourself.
New York Philharmonic Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein
Sony Classical Bernstein Century Edition SMK60564 (80‘ · ADD). Recorded 1965. Buy from Amazon
We are often assured that great conductors of an earlier generation interpreted Mahler from within the Austrian tradition, encoding a sense of nostalgia, decay and incipient tragedy as distinct from the in-your-face calamities and neuroses proposed by Leonard Bernstein. Well, this is one Bernstein recording that should convince all but the most determined sceptics. It deserves a place in anyone’s collection now that it has been transferred to a single disc at mid-price. The white-hot communicative power is most obvious in the finale, which has never sounded more convincing than it does here; the only mildly questionable aspect of the reading is the second Nachtmusik, too languid for some. The transfer is satisfactory, albeit dimmer than one might have hoped. It sounds historic, but historic in more ways than one.
Coupled with Mozart Symphony No 41, ‘Jupiter’
London Philharmonic Orchestra / Klaus Tennstedt
BBC Legends BBCL4224-2 (111’ · ADD). Symphony recorded live in 1980 and Mozart in 1985. Buy from Amazon
This BBC Legends Seventh comes from a 1980 concert given at the Edinburgh Festival just a few months before Tennstedt and the LPO took the work into EMI’s Abbey Road studios. It’s a revelation. Yes, the interpretative outline is similar in both accounts but how fervent the playing is here, and how much more sense Tennstedt’s tempo manipulations make. Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony receives a stylish performance. Treasurable.