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Recordings

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 7
08 Sep 2006

MAHLER: Symphony no. 7

At the expense of stating a truism, the music of Gustav Mahler, like that of other composers, is best experienced live in the concert hall.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 7

Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Claudio Abbado, conductor.

EuroArts 2054628 [DVD]

$22.99  Click to buy

The excitement of a performance contributes an element of tension that is, obviously, not possible in all studio recordings. This is certainly true of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, and this is borne out in the response to some recordings when the result may not convey enough excitement for all listeners. Yet in a live performance this pointed cues. Seeing him lead this work demonstrates his own vision of the work, which work is often quite moving, and it is possible to understand its attraction in this recently released DVD of Claudio Abbado’s concerts on 17 and 18 August 2005. Granted, this recording is based on recordings of two performances, but it is, nonetheless, a fine replica of the way this work can be experienced in the concert hall.

Given the number of fine recordings of the Seventh Symphony that have appeared in the last decade, it is unfair to continue to treat the work as the stepchild of Mahler’s symphonies. The Cinderella analogy that may be traced to Deryck Cooke is an artifact that need no longer be used, and Abbado’s performance helps to reinforce the strength of the score. This “Song of the Night” as commentators – not Mahler – have called the Symphony may be regarded as a work that moves from night to day, as it starts with a wonderfully forward-looking movement in which quartal sonorities mask the otherwise diatonic harmonic at the root of the symphonic structure.

Abbado’s clear grasp of the structure of the first movement is evident in his clear gestures and the firm concept he brings to the movement. This becomes clear in the DVD since it captures the conductor’s cueing and nods to the ensemble as he shapes the work. Hardly impassive, Abbado sometimes appears like a coach, when he smiles at a particular passage’s successful execution. As much as it is possible appreciate Abbado’s interpretation by listening to the result, seeing the conductor work with his ensemble makes a difference in understanding the driving vision behind the performance.

The second movement, “Nachtmusik I,” is masterfully executed, but some of the pans to specific sections seem, perhaps, a little reminiscent of a more agitated score than this. A quick cut to the violins, just to capture the pizzicato is out of character with the content of this movement, where longer phrases are important. Likewise, the pacing between the crosscuts seems, at times, counter to the musical content that they are conveying. Just as a video of an orchestral performance without any close-ups and pans would seems less than perfect, it can be equally distracting when the video sometimes interrupts the musical narrative in a performance like this. As with other cinematography, the visual techniques should support the subject, and longer, lingering shots, such as those found in the recently released videos of Gunter Wand conducting Bruckner’s music.

That aside, the Scherzo draws much attention on Abbado himself, and it is possible match his gestures with the passages he crafts well. This is a well-paced interpretation of the Scherzo, with the details so essential to the score carefully placed and played cleanly. If fault may be found with the performance, it is, perhaps, just a bit too lively a sound for a movement that is marked at the outset “Schattenhaft” (“shadowy”). The antithesis of the elfin Scherzos associated with Mendelssohn, this nocturnal movement deserves a bit of ambiguity to convey its character.

Such ambiguity is essential to the second “Nachtmusik,” which is essentially a piece of chamber music that happens to be written for orchestra. The entrances blend well, as if the ensemble were one that performed together more regularly than at the Lucerne Festival alone. Within the ternary structure of the movement, Mahler has created some intricate thematic connections that unify the piece. It is especially in this movement that the deft hand of the conductor needs to shape phrases and to control the balances so that the effect is subtle and persuasive in its highly romantic affect.

Yet in presenting the Rondo-Finale, the one in which the nocturnal images associated with the previous movements are dissipated by the light of day, Abbado’s opening gesture stands out for the notably brisk tempo he established in the timpani. As much as the stark contrast certainly sets the final movement apart from the others, this single element seems out of place for the way it sets the opening motif out of context. At times some of the entrances that follow seem perilously fast, and although the players succeed at executing the music at Abbado’s tempos, they are certainly virtuosic.

At another level, though, the orchestration and scoring match the form of the movement; as the refrain of the Rondo recurs with increasing familiarity, so too does the intensity of the ensemble. The movement culminates in the massive sound of the final statement, which must leave the hall awash with sound, and Abbado achieves this well. It requires an ensemble to sustain its intensity throughout a movement of this scope that balances the opening one, which is no mean feat. The Rondo-Finale is famously criticized for its overly optimistic tone, but Abbado’s approach certainly does not make the movement seem as prosaic as some critics would have it. It caps the entire Symphony well, and only falls short with the overly anxious “Bravo” that some member had to yell before the sound reverberated sufficiently.

Overall this fine recording benefits from caliber of musicians who participated in the Festival, and it would have been useful to see some of Abbado’s rehearsals en route to the concerts that were used to make the DVD. The medium of the concert DVD lends itself well to being supplemented by footage from rehearsals, which may be quite useful for other musicians to gain from the insights of the conductor or, given the level of players involved in this recording, the questions or suggestions that might come from the ensemble itself. This is not a defect as much as a missed opportunity that would enhance such a recording. As interesting as it is to hear such a convincing performance of a work like this, it is all the more intriguing to learn how the musicians worked together at arriving at the interpretations. While the usually private matter of rehearsals have become fair game for inclusion in CDs of concerts, the festival performance at Lucerne, with such an impressive group of musicians, makes it all the more interesting to learn how they related to each other and\, more importantly, how Abbado communicated his interpretation of the Seventh Symphony to them in what must have been a relatively short time.

Abbado demonstrates with this DVD his nuanced and convincing approach to Mahler’s music. Those unfamiliar with his recordings of the composer’s works should find this DVD to be an excellent point of entry and, if intrigued, should pursue his impressive recording of the Second Symphony that also came from the Lucerne Festival.

James L. Zychowicz

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