Mahler’s 7th Symphony has eluded me longer than any other Mahler symphony, and although I enjoyed it plenty, it never seemed to reveal its secrets to me. Such secrets I knew it had plenty of, most of them hidden in the Nachtmusik
of the three middle movements, because Boulez, Kubelik, and Abbado have made excellent (and radically different) recordings in which you experience the mysterious atmosphere (or a structural abyss – as in Boulez) a-plenty. It is an often serene, eerily calm symphony – much less driven than any of the others… it unfolds, it wistfully reminisces and ‘happens’, rather than making an imprint.
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Performance, December 12th 2005: Mahler 3rd, Conlon/Juilliard Orchestra
Performance, May 10th 2005: Mahler 9th, Barenboim/CSO
Performance, April 21st 2005: Mahler 9th, Slatkin/NSO
Performance, May 10th 2005: Mahler 4th, Temirkanov/BltSO
Performance, May 10th 2005: Mahler 5th, Eschenbach/Philadelphia
Performance, May 10th 2005: Mahler 1st, R.Abbado/NSO
Recording: Mahler 9th, MTT/SFSO
Recording: Mahler 2nd, MTT/SFSO
Recording: Mahler 6th, I.Fischer/BdPFSO
Recording: Mahler 6th, Abbado/BPh et al.
Recording: Mahler 8th, Rattle, Nagano, Kubelik, Järvi
Recording: Mahler 3rd, Boulez/VPh
Because of MTT's way with previous Mahler symphonies ("well-behaved," "civilized," with a great sense of continuous musical and dramatic lines; excelling in the subtle and backed by excellent playing of the SFSO), I had very high expectations from this particular 7th. Upon hearing it turns out to be the same exquisite playing I've come to expect from that combo.
With nuanced detail, well-structured, lovingly presented - quaver for quaver - this is easily the least
satisfying Mahler 7th I have ever heard on record or live.
For all its beauty, professionalism and excellence in execution, for every instance
that is above criticism, the symphony as a whole is - to my ears - a complete failure.
The outer movements, to be sure, are not just superficially excellent – they are as much as one can ask from a performance of the 7th. The are engaging and meticulously crafted without the latter coming at the expense of energy and flux. The crux of the matter is the Nachtmusik
. Instead of a nebulous lurk around the moonlit nightscapes, MTT produces an assertive, foursquare march in broad daylight. There is not an ounce of the mysterious conveyed, no strange and wondrous sense of the obscure. Under Thomas’s baton the problem is not that the symphony does not reveal its secrets, it’s that the work simply doesn’t have any.
Compared to my current and strong favorite of this work, Abbado’s most recent recording, live with the Berlin Philharmonic, the San Francisco installment must plead ‘no contest’. Rather than trying to penetrate a particular meaning in the symphony, I can now listen to Abbado – enthrallingly nocturnal in the middle movements – with blissful abandon; not unlike the mature ease of being able to simply live
with a mysterious woman rather than straining to ‘figure her out’. None of that is offered to me by the MTT recording, and there are not many other reasons for which I would want to listen to a recording of the 7th, anymore. Craftsmanship alone simply isn’t enough, making one of the best-recorded Mahler symphonies a tragic miscalculation in my book. The sum of the parts which I find lacking in this issue is small and always subtle. The total of loss, however, justifies my drastic judgement – at least to my ears and my Mahler sensibility.The Gramophone
has reviewed this recording, too, and as with most recent Mahler reviews (Rattle/Nagano 8th, Fischer 6th, Abbado 6th) of that magazine, I cannot agree with their critic at all. In Mahler I have found more kindred ears in the resident crankmeister Mahler expert at the American Record Guide
and Classics Today
’s David Hurwitz.