By now we are pretty far into Zinman's complete Mahler symphony series. He's released all the symphonies in order so far, leading the same excellent Tonhalle band in Zurich where he is Music Director. The series has really outstanding super audio surround sound. No surround cinema gimmicks; just warmth, vivid tone colors, and enough air around the whole band playing full tilt or solo that the shine and the virtuoso technique of the Zurich band departments comes through, gangbusters.
The seventh symphony still remains the orphaned challenger among the rest. It is notoriously difficult to bring off. Many performances err on the side of being too literal (thus deficient in that core of fantasy that one infers must run all through the work, with two movements titled, Night Music); or err by being so free-wheeling that unleashing the fantastical obscures the composer's claim that he was, indeed, writing yet another cosmos-embracing symphony.
The dipping oars motif that opens the first movement is etched very clearly, very literally here. That seems to predict that this new Zinman reading will likely err on the side of literalism? If erring? Indeed, as a Mahler conductor Zinman seems comfortably tilted towards cool-objective attitudes or manners? (Think Erich Leinsdorf, George Szell, Bernard Haitink, Claudio Abbado, Pierre Boulez, Benjamin Zander ... with the polar opposites interpreters all being freer, hotter, as in Leonard Bernstein, Klaus Tennstedt [focus, those live LPO recording sessions], Willem Mengelberg, even Hermann Scherchen at times.)
If a listener settles back, expecting Mahler played with cool literal-mindedness, however, this reading will offer up plenty of surprises. The Tonhalle band manage astounding virtuoso riffs, often. It just may sink in that what other bands and other conductors express by rubato and hot emoting, Zinman and Zurich may still yet reveal in the ever-shifting parade of musical colors, textures, and metamorphosing phrases of this most mercurial of Mahler works.
I confess I have to be in a certain frame of hearing for this type of Mahler reading to move me. I'm more likely to be swept up in the freer, more emotional approach - but not always. Some middle-way performances are among my favorite seventh symphonies - with the Bernstein/NYP/DGG lifting high above all the rest so far because the second Bernstein reading just keeps morphing and changing and morphing again, all the way home. As if a Bachian polyphony obtained in this Mahler symphony above all, with deep anticipations of what the Vienna Third School composers would later tag, constant variation-evolution. Add Zinman and Tonhalle to those fond neighbors, Bertini in Cologne, Levine in Chicago, Klemperer in London?
In Zinman's take, the more relaxed sections in the middle three movements sound more like Robert Schumann and less like Franz Schubert, if those associations apply. Busy sections have a Lisztian vigor, wild, gypsy. The brights and shadows cast in this odd work are all there, I think. The first Night Music is more fantastical in shapes and colors, preparing for the Hallows' e'en scherzo that sits right in the middle of five movements. The fantasy is Brothers Grimm tales stuff; Des Knaben Wunderhorn folk materials brought out after sundown as light fades, like familiar yet vaguely uncanny ghost tales we tell around a flickering outdoor camp fire. The contrasting sections remind us of formal civilization and family life, briefly touching base with reassuring forward motion and soothing warmth of good company. Then that center stage horn soloist and the lower woodwinds lead us right back again, into shadowy worlds where we whistle in the dark through higher, more piercing woodwinds, not quite sure of our grasp on being safe, after all. The touches of Vienna schmaltz revolve slightly off kilter, undeniably a tad menacing - like an unnamed precursor of Ravel's later orchestra fantasia, La Valse. We march around a bit, acting like good Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, surrounded by flashes of darkness and mystery, fearsome.
After this first Night Music, the Scherzo is unleashed to rattle its skeleton bones even more freely. The insistent scout marching of the prior movement yields to the endless, relentless whirl of fate's wheels. Our suggested landscape is no longer reminiscent of innocent childhood faced with blind-incomprehensible human suffering; but a more inward, grown-ups panorama, vision of human culture and trained human reason faced with all the things so far beyond human control, going bump in all the nights. Strong, lyrical string gestures replace those higher woodwinds that reached back towards good spirits. We adults together can sing affirmative song phrases, without quite forgetting that we have read Lord of the Flies, everyone and each one. That landscape of shadows is as much inside us, as surrounding us on a dark night. The Vienna touches of Schmaltz also return, keener, whirling, slightly more off kilter, sharpened. Ah, the bravado of the grown-ups. What to do without it? What to do when we cannot fail to see through it? Hints of fear, pain, loss melt into sung phrases that sound like lament, lamentation that is human promise of slow healing into maturity, seasoned.
Oddly again, this prepares us for the second Night Music which is more shot through with melancholy, and a persistent-open charm of folk materials. Memory, regret, nostalgia, longing, even saddest of our being together with companions who keep us company - feed inevitably into the hidden sense of human survival revealed bare in the face of frank tragedy - humanizing.
The closing finale bursts vigorously into this musical flow of first Night Music, Scherzo, and second Night Music. Busy life is right back on the doorsteps, no matter what we have survived, have suffered. A string of contrasts fills out this Rondo form. Episodes suggest bustling daily life, folk charm, and the real building point seems actually to be the polyphony fleshing out through all the Rondo sequences returning. Home harmonies seem to be shifting beneath our feet, constantly. (This is an aspect in which the second Bernstein reading excels.) Martial touches, Vienna Schmaltz touches heighten motion and color without framing center stage as the only main musical focus; that emerges as the interplay of many themes coming all together, ever intertwining, transforming. The success of this close, if it be - is that its reach encompasses, back to Bach, forward to Webern?
If you are a die-hard devotee of the hot-blooded view in Mahler, I do not think this Zinman-Zurich Mahler seven will quite get you there. It culminates with too persistent a sense of modernity, for all that. The bells and perorations of its last pages strike a crescendo of the building polyphony and forward motion in western classical music. We've been through quite a lot. We still have as many questions as we have answers, that sort of finale. This reading adds up to something as modern and unfinished an intellectual or expressive project as Darwin's Theory of Evolution in the cosmos that Mahler seems always to have aimed for a symphony to embody.
If you can take Zinman's way, however, this reading surely stands tall, an exemplar. Five stars. Really fine sound, super audio surround channels, too.