Mahler's Seventh Symphony is seen by many as his weakest, though containing much that is great. The 2 outer movements are the usual cause for criticism-and mighty edifices they are in structure, though not necessarily the best constructed!
On the other hand, Klaus Tennstedt in a characteristic fit of over enthusiasm declared in an interview that the first movement was the single greatest work composed by Mahler, and was one of the most significant pieces of music ever written.
This concert from 1994 was in fact scheduled to be conducted by Tennstedt, but at that stage of his life his frailty meant that any scheduled appearance was tenuous, and sadly on this occasion he was not well enough to conduct.
That sadness is tempered by the fact that his replacement was Dr. Michael Gielen, one of the most interesting and cerebral conductors of our era, and whose performances are invariably fascinating and illuminating, though definitely at the opposite end of the spectrum from the emotional commitment of Tennstedt.
Gielen has always been a highly individual interpreter, whose approach is perhaps best likened to that of Boulez-except that where I so often find that Boulez illuminates the mechanics of a work but" eliminates the music", so to speak, Gielen is all about letting the music come through naturally and without affectation. This is not easy with Mahler, and I know that his recorded cycle with his SWR Baden-Baden Orchestra is not to every Mahler lover's taste.
Here he is so galvanised by the sheer brilliance and virtuosity of the BPO that the drive, "electricity" and sheer joyful exuberance that he elicits from this extraordinary score will surely win him admirers from among the sceptics.
While I don't quite share Tennstedt's views on the first movement-neither did he in sober moments-I love its eccentric unfolding of tempestuous drama morphing into passionate lyricism and ending in glorious optimism. It does of course have its "clunky" moments-its Mahler!
Gielen gives us a swift but not frenetic reading, smoothing over the awkward changes of tempi and mood as well as anyone, and carrying us along on a torrent of glorious sound. He does not pull phrases around as much as Bernstein, is less meandering than Abbado in his superb BPO account and not as hard driven as Solti, and while he brings out strands of detail throughout this and the remaining movements, he does not allow the music to stagnate as Boulez does. With Boulez, detail and structure are revealed as never before, but there is little or no sense of the music itself.
The 2 Nocturnes are glorious, and the Scherzo has the orchestra revelling in Gielen's treatment of its diabolical waltz theme-a true Walpurgisnacht vision.
Gielen attacks the finale with verve, negotiates its awkward turns with aplomb, and brings us to a riotous and joyful conclusion with tam-tam, bells and thunderous percussion caught brilliantly.
The playing throughout is glorious, bordering on the superhuman, and Testament's mastering of the Berlin Radio Digital Master Tapes is as ever exemplary, giving the stings bloom and depth, brilliance and sonority to the brass and of course the woodwind are just glorious, as ever with the BPO.
My favourite recordings of the 7th are Bernstein with the NYPO which in its 24Bit re-mastering in the complete set is astonishing artistically and sonically, Abbado both with the CSO and BPO with the Berlin version just edging it, and best of all Jansons with his magnificent BRSO , who utilises the New Critical Edition to telling effect. Other much loved recordings are Sinopoli's scary deconstructionalist approach with the Philharmonia absolutely galvanised, Bernstein's later Digital NYPO sonically challenged recording, Solti for its sheer exuberance and brilliant playing, Kubelik with the BRSO and Maazel with the VPO. We will pass over the Klemperer even its new 24bit guise!
The scope and scale of interpretational difference across these recordings is perhaps greater than with any of the other Mahler symphonies, demonstrating yet again that there is no clearly defined approach to this glorious music, and this recording joins the ranks among the very best for Gielen's clarity of vision and in elucidating the score, the glorious playing of the orchestra and the excellence of the recording. A fascinating and rewarding experience highly recommended with 5 Stars. Stewart Crowe.