Mahler: Symphony No. 7 - Vänskä
Classical - Orchestral
Mahler: Symphony No. 7
Osmo Vänskä, conductor
In an effort to arrange the first performance of his Seventh Symphony, Gustav Mahler declared it to be his best work, ‘preponderantly cheerful in character’. His younger colleague Schoenberg expressed his admiration for the work, and Webern considered it his favourite Mahler symphony. Nevertheless, it remains the least performed and least written-about symphony of the entire cycle, and has come to be regarded as enigmatic and less successful than its siblings. One reason for this has been the huge – even for Mahler – contrasts that it encompasses: from a first movement which seems to continue the atmosphere of the previous symphony, the ‘Tragic’ Sixth, to a finale that has been accused of excessive triumphalism, and which Mahler himself once described as ‘broad daylight’. Between these two poles, he supplies no less than two movements entitled Nachtmusik (‘night music’) framing a scherzo to which the composer added the character marking schattenhaft (‘shadowy’).
Mahler famously said that ‘a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.’ The Seventh is as true to this dictum as any other of the symphonies, offering a wealth of emotions, moods and colours. The composer makes full and imaginative use of the orchestra’s extended wind and percussion sections – including cowbells, whips and glockenspiel – as well as a mandolin and a guitar, adding a troubadour-like aspect to the nightly serenade of the fourth movement. All of this is brought to life by the players of the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä, as they continue a cycle praised for the performances as well as the recorded sound.
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Review by Graham Williams - July 18, 2020
The seemingly unstoppable growth of competing interpretations on disc of the Mahler symphonic oeuvre that began in the 1970’s and 80’s still shows no signs of diminishing. A glance at the current listings of the composer’s symphonies, that includes more and more recorded in high resolution sound, confirm that Mahler’s oft quoted saying ‘My time will come’ has arrived with a vengeance.
Until quite recently, however, that was not the case with the 7th Symphony that the composer premiered in Prague in 1908. For many years received critical opinion was negative about many aspects of the piece; the enigmatic character of the music, the contrast between the two forceful outer movements and the three strange ‘nocturnal’ middle movements not to mention the technical challenges it presented for both performers and audiences. The genesis of this Symphony and the many puzzling aspects of its composition are explored with considerable insight in Jeremy Bareham’s perceptive liner notes accompanying this SACD and explain why the work quickly came to be regarded as ‘problematic’ and why it rarely made its way into the concert hall or the recording studio. Fortunately this is no longer the case, and when, as on this new release, this Symphony is performed with absolute conviction by a top-flight orchestra and a conductor whose concern for textural clarity and sense of drama is a hallmark of his many recordings, the result can be revelatory.
This is the sixth release to appear in Osmo Vänskä’s steadily emerging Mahler cycle that began with the 5th Symphony in 2017 and I would rate it as one of the finest so far in terms of interpretation, execution and sound quality. Vänskä’s very measured tempo for the opening of the work with its baleful tenor horn solo eloquently delivered by R Douglas Wright is strikingly different from those of other versions that I have used for comparison purposes. As the movement progresses it becomes apparent that there is considerable flexibility in the conductor’s approach. Dynamics are carefully gauged, rhythms sharply articulated and phrasing is shapely with inner lines clearly enunciated. In the lovely central section of this movement with its spectral trumpet fanfares and bird calls Vänskä and his musicians engender a magical sense of stillness and anticipation. As the march returns Vänskä maintains his dogged tempo in accordance with the composer’s marking ‘risoluto’ and drives the music to a powerful conclusion.
After such an individual first movement it was something of a surprise to find that Vänskä’s speeds for the remaining movements of the Symphony are unexceptionable and adhere quite closely to those adopted by other interpreters. In both of the contrasting Nachtmusik movements the conductor’s pacing, attention to dynamics, balance and phrasing are scrupulous and refreshingly free of any interpretive mannerisms. The central scherzo is swift and lithe with the players relishing the inventiveness of Mahler’s orchestral effects and the novelty of the work’s instrumentation that variously includes, mandolin, guitar, harps, rute, cowbells and tubular bells.
The uninhibited account of the whirlwind finale is exceptionally thrilling and marked by the kind of precision from the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra that we have come to expect of them during Vänskä’s long tenure as their music director. They are guided with absolute assurance by him through the contrapuntal maelstrom and stylistic diversity that characterises this movement and respond unfailingly with incisive playing of the utmost commitment and virtuosity.
The Symphony was recorded in November 2018 at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis by the experienced BIS team of Robert Suff (Producer) and Thore Brinkmann (Sound engineer) in 5.0 multi-channel and the usual BIS 24-bit / 96 kHz format. The recording is a model of refinement and transparency in which all the strands of Mahler’s complex symphonic argument can be clearly discerned in a manner that would be almost impossible for one to experience to the full in the concert hall, yet the overall sound has a pleasing coherence and naturalness.
For those intent on collecting Vänskä’s Mahler traversal this will be a mandatory choice.
Others have the enviable opportunity to choose from a plethora of modern versions of Mahler’s most enigmatic symphony on disc to which this most impressive release can confidently be added.
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