Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 7
Michael Gielen, cond; Berliner PO
TESTAMENT 1480 (80:28) Live: Berlin 9/21/1994
Of all Mahler’s symphonies, the Seventh is perhaps the most saturated with thematic detail. Its melodic material moves between foreground and background with mercurial fluidity. Counterpoint is often dense and consists of several themes stated simultaneously. Harmonic development, especially in the dauntingly knotty first movement, is often driven by thematic development. It can be difficult for a listener
to keep track of the Symphony’s wealth of musical material, and the work as a whole can seem episodic and arbitrarily dissonant.
This belatedly-released concert recording is a model of clarity and precision. This is both its greatest strength and its greatest shortcoming. Michael Gielen succeeds in making nearly every thematic reference instantly recognizable, even when the instrumentation is at its thickest. Mahler’s architecture is audible in this performance, and this is a tremendous asset for anyone who appreciates the Seventh but finds it elusive. The trade-off is that Gielen’s performance conveys a sense of control and formality that I find to be at odds with the more intimate and rhapsodic elements of the Symphony.
Gielen’s tempos are somewhat more deliberate than those of most conductors; his Seventh is seven minutes longer than Kubelík’s or Horenstein’s, though it is four minutes shorter than Barbirolli’s and is on par with Abbado’s. A stately tempo serves the Symphony’s opening theme well, suggesting a stealthy advance rather than a rushing onslaught. Likewise, the boisterous B-Major duet between violins and horns acquires an extra lilt in Gielen’s spacious reading. But the
theme that serves as the movement’s motto lacks urgency, and the march rhythms accompanying it lack drive. This is not because the tempo is too slow but because it is not flexible enough to create the needed intensification. Gielen is fairly literal throughout his presentation of the Symphony, obeying Mahler’s copious performance instructions with admirable faithfulness but rarely adding to what is instructed. And while Mahler is more explicit in his directions than many composers, he leaves ample opportunity for interpretation.
The horn calls that open the second movement, for example, would benefit from a generous dose of rubato. In Kubelík’s and Horenstein’s treatments, they sound lonely and plaintive, whereas Gielen opts for a declamatory presentation. This provides inadequate contrast with the theme’s ensuing chorale treatment, which requires a strict tempo. Likewise, Gielen’s precise execution of the clarinet’s chattering triplet figuration precludes the pastoral effect Abbado achieves. Gielen excels, in contrast, at the dance and folk elements of this movement.
The Scherzo is an exercise in extreme contrast between the nightmarish and the naïve. Gielen highlights this dual quality effectively. I wish only that the triplet scales in the strings were more sweeping and less even. This would create an anxious murmuring effect that would enhance the first theme’s grotesqueness.
The fourth movement captures the distinction between Mahler’s rich lyricism and his evocation of pastoral innocence. The introductory measures soar lavishly in the strings, while the clarinet’s response is appropriately straightforward and unadorned. Gielen’s sense of instrumental balance is most apparent in this movement and is supported by the recording’s superb sound quality; the guitar and mandolin are never lost, even when accompanying a full battery of strings. Again, a more elastic tempo would be welcome; the violin solos that pepper the movement never recapture the impassioned lyricism of the opening measures. Gielen’s capacity for control, though, makes for a deeply satisfying conclusion, the emotional tension dissipating more gradually than in any other performance I have heard.
The final movement is the most successful. Its opening fanfares are remarkable in their clarity. Rhythms are perfectly crisp throughout. The effect of triumphant spectacle overwhelms but never degenerates into bombast or noise. The slower sections exhibit a refined sense of courtliness. And the return of the first movement’s motto theme is subtle, worked into the Finale’s texture bit by bit until it predominates.
The Berlin Philharmonic’s playing is superb. Special mention must be made of the brass section’s flawless navigation of Mahler’s treacherous writing, quite remarkable in a live performance. And though Gielen’s interpretation lacks the emotional intensity needed for a truly effective Seventh, this recording will please any listener eager to become acquainted with the structural details of this extremely complex work. Listeners eager for a more visceral experience of the Symphony should supplement this recording with Horenstein’s New Philharmonia Orchestra performance from 1969 or Abbado’s 1984 recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
FANFARE: Myron Silberstein
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 7 in E minor by Gustav Mahler
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1904-1905; Vienna, Austria
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