Quite often in Mahler Klaus Tennstedt had only himself to surpass -- particularly in concert, where like Furtwangler he gave of his best. This Mahler Seventh from 1980 is powerful and haunted. It's not the only great interpretation I've heard, but it's the most spontaneous and alive. The orchestra plays with incredible intensity, to shattering effect. I know of only one other Tennstedt reading that is so fervent that it's hard to sit through quietly, a live Mahler Sixth on the London Phil's house label. This Seventh registers slightly lower because the two eerie Nachtmusik movements afford some relief from the nerve-wracking tension. Yet even they are spine-tingling. As Klemperer did, Tennstedt takes some broad tempos, which is why at 82 min. his account spills, if just barely, on to a second CD. Unlike Klemperer, however, Tennstedt freely varies the speed within each movement, giving an impression of fast-slow that can be quite giddy.
My touchstone for this work, Bernstein's NY Phil. recording from 1965, makes for a fascinating comparison. Exuberant as Bernstein was, his involvement isn't as passionate or emotionally wrenching as Tennstedt's. For one thing, almost every conductor tries to impose some kind of coherence on to the sprawling first movement, whereas Tennstedt steers his ship into the maelstrom, forcing us to feel the off-kilter tempos, tumultuous mood swings, and erupting violence at their rawest. The fact that Bernstein's Seventh is a minute or so faster in three of the movements doesn't convey the wild ride that Tennstedt leads. It's like entering a netherworld painted by Hieronymus Bosch -- here is bizarrie and suffering merging into ghoulish whimsy and hell-bent frolicking. Even Bernstein couldn't approach such a vision. Thankfully, the BBC's broadcast sound is almost as good as studio quality (barring the blurry timpani opening to the finale), and the LPO makes only niggling errors. The audience is silent, no doubt because they are stunned.
To remind us that we haven't entirely lost our chance to regain Paradise, BBC includes a Mozart 'Jupiter' from 1985, done as generously and genially as Bruno Walter's. Tennstedt was traditional enough to accept the old view that the Mozart 41st was Beethoven in the making.