Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Mahler: Symphony No 7
Friday July 20, 2001
The Guardian (UK)
Of all Mahler's symphonies, the Seventh is the most enigmatic, and in its musical language the most radical and forward-looking. Schoenberg regarded it as the work that signaled the end of romanticism, the historic moment at which all the tenets that had sustained music for the previous century began to crumble away.
The symphony's sense of inhabiting a twilight world in which all the old certainties were being questioned and found wanting - two of its most disconcerting movements are labeled "Nachtmusik" - perhaps led to its nickname, The Song of the Night. If it is a gigantic nocturne, though, it is one far removed from the gentle musings that the 19th century would have recognized in the form.
Mahler began the score in 1904, while he was still finishing the Sixth Symphony. He composed the two Nachtmusik movements first, and had finished and revised it thoroughly two years later; the first performance that he conducted himself took place in 1908.
It has never been among the most popular of his symphonies, and much of the criticism of the work's structure has been leveled against the last movement, with its brazen, almost post-modern collation of styles, including a C major theme that could have come straight out of Wagner's Mastersingers. Yet it's a conclusion that can be made to work, given the right conductor; then it seems like a joyous assertion of the polyglot confusion of the exterior world, coming as it does after the introverted neuroses that have colored so much of what has gone before.
Though the current CD catalogue suggests that, apart from the unfinished Tenth, it is the least recorded of all the symphonies, the Seventh has never lacked champions - Otto Klemperer conducted the piece from the 1920s onwards, and in the 1950s Hans Rosbaud and Hermann Scherchen, then in the vanguard of the Mahler revival, both recorded the work.
Klemperer's own recording from the 1960s (EMI) is dark and grim, and never really sounds convinced by the brazen optimism of the finale. The work is not one of the most successful elements, either, in any of the cycles by Haitink (Phillips), Kubelik (Deutsche Grammophon), Tennstedt (EMI), Solti (Decca) and Bernstein (Sony).
The Seventh was one of the first issues in Pierre Boulez's ongoing Mahler series (Deutsche Grammophon), and this is a performance that, predictably, relishes the work's foreshadowing of modernism, while seeming more impatient with the backward glances.
That Janus-like character of the work is best conveyed by Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon) and Riccardo Chailly. Chailly just wins on points: partly because of the vivid quality of the sound, but more importantly because of the gorgeous playing of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, who played this music under the composer and his first great advocate Willem Mengelberg, and still have it in their bones.
Key Recording: Chailly (Decca, 2 CDs)