I am pleased with this version of a lesser known Mahler symphony for various reasons. Valery Gergiev is a favourite conductor of mine of the modern era and once again I am impressed with his interpretation of a monumental work. Also the playing of the LSO proves that they rate among the great orchestras of the world. In a work of this complexity both instrumentally and thematically, I find it helps to refer to programme notes as well as having some insight to into the powerful emotions that drove this great composer.
This recording has all the hallmarks of Gergiev and the LSO playinng in the Barbican Hall - a rather breathless acoustic that the engineers attempt to defeat by close recording and detailed sound mixing. So this is a superbly played and decently recorded performance, that retails at a good price and which is exciting enough to win new converts to the music.
Yet my personal response to this performance is not really very enthusiastic. All the notes are in place and the orchestra plays with a brilliant elan. But I feel that the cumulative effect of this is to produce a brightly jewelled skeleton that really does not have all that much flesh on its bones: Mahler in a post "Rite of Spring" guise without any of the small touches of rubato that can inflect the score and bring it to life. An example is towards the end of Movement 1 (about 16.10) where the score is marked "Pomposo". Many conductors insert the slightest of pauses before this "pompous" statement of full orchestra. But on this disc the moment goes for nothing as the orchestra careers forward at a breakneck tempo.
I also feel that there is a lack of shading of tone in movements 2 and 3 - and #3 is not a particularly "shadowy" ("Schattenhaft")spooky scherzo. Nachtmusik II (movement #4) is, however, charming, beautifully paced, and romantic. Movement #5 is clearly done and, importantly, not overstated with the sort of impossible speeds attempted by interpreters like Solti.
This is probably one of the cheapest Mahler 7 recordings around at the moment and it is certainly well played. But this magnificent symphony deserves the special touch of orchesras and conductors who are deeply attuned to the work. It is worth paying more money for one of the two front running live performances that are in competition. Tennstedt Mahler - Symphony No 7; Mozart - Symphony No 41 costs £10 more but is worth every penny of this - a quite different approach that is weightier and holds together greater extremes of the joyful and the sininster. Raphael Kubelik on Audite Mahler - Symphony No. 7 /kubelik is at the other interpretive end of the scale from Tennstedt: mercurial, playful and mysterious in turn it adopts the same standpoint in terms of speed and impact as the Gergiev but with a really three dimensional presentation of atmosphere (but it costs twice as much as Gergiev). The Gergiev is, as I have said, wonderfully played but it does not replace the two I have mentioned as a front-runner live version of this strange and attractive symphony.
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It seems the LSO knew what it was doing when it chose Valery Gergiev as its principal conductor back in 2007. The fiery Russian who follows a hectic schedule (how many conductors put out six new discs a year?) has raised the LSO to new heights, rivaled only by Rattle and his Berliners as the most exciting conductor/orchestra relationship on the scene today. Yet his weakness as a conductor is that he can become too bold and fierce, rushing and losing the charm in his music. Approaching this disc, I wondered if this weakness would cause him to miss the point of Mahler's Seventh, a towering work that requires excitement and drama but also sensitivity--you don't want it to become a noisy mess.
Listening to the opening of the symphony, it was clear that Gergiev wasn't going to struggle with timidity. This didn't come as a surprise, but as the movement progressed, I was astonished at just how sensitive Gergiev had turned out to be. Amidst all Mahler's inner struggles, he found room for beauty. Amid all the tosses and turns, Gergiev always had a firm grip on the music, making sense out of every move. The two "Nachtmusik" movements have a special place in the realm of music, as the music is clearly nocturnal but it's soon apparent that the music is written for those who are up in the middle of the night--not for those slumbering. Ever ambitious, Mahler adds guitars and mandolins to his orchestra, not to mention various percussion instruments, including cow bells! In both of these movements, Gergiev is charming, moving along but you can always sense warmth. By this time I'm thoroughly convinced; the Scherzo that is sandwiched between to the two "Nachtmusik" movements is chilling in Gergiev's hands, a stark contrast to the joys of the other movements. But the finale is even more convincing. Gergiev is overflowing with visceral impact as the music flows effortlessly off the page with not one dull moment. Gergiev pushes the music with his incomparable drive, yet again it's worth noting how sensitive he is. The symphony ends in high spirits and by now I'm on my knees acknowledging the Gergiev truly does have what it takes to be a great Mahlerian. None of my aforementioned fears were warranted.
In closing, this is a very fine disc. This is too extraordinary to pass by.
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