As an exponent of Mahler Rattle suits me more or less ideally. This recording has been fused together from two live performances on successive dates at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1991. At that time Rattle was still in his first major appointment as conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It seems he had made, but embargoed in a manner worthy of Rudolf Serkin, an earlier recording of Mahler's 7th. We can probably trust his judgment as far as that decision goes. The lost performance was very unlikely to have been better than this one. My own collection of Mahler symphony issues has a superb #5 from Sir Simon as he now is, and with the Berlin Phil where I think he still is. That account seems to me a model of Mahlerian virtues. It shows acute sensitivity to Mahler's special tone, part assertive and part vulnerable. It shows impressive command in balancing Mahler's huge orchestral battalions and conveying his unique orchestral coloration. It handles the changes of mood effortlessly, and it is flexible - indeed bold -- in its tempo rubato without losing flow or coherence. It brings us the more experienced maestro; but it seems to me from hearing this 7th that the young genius of 1991 already had all the aptitudes needed for this composer.
The recording is not, naturally, some contemporary wonder of technology as in Abbado's recent Mahler 3. However it is perfectly adequate, indeed more than adequate. This is what Mahler should sound like, even in the earlier stretches of the first movement where he sounds uncommonly like Scriabin (another kind of sound I happen to like). The playing, with its many exposed solos, strikes me as excellent too. Whether Rattle found the CBSO as good as this, or whether he made them as good as this, I neither know nor much care. They are well up to the job and they sound inspired by it. Beecham used to say about his players (with that special modesty of his) `They make the notes and I make the music.' With a conductor of the stature of Beecham, or of Rattle, that is just simply the truth of the matter. No orchestral players on their own, still less any recording technicians, could define the ebb and flow of the tempo that is so vital in Mahler, let alone keep it together coherently and convincingly. That is the conductor's challenge, and this conductor's way is the way I like Mahler done. Boulez for one has a different approach, but while Boulez in Stravinsky surpasses everyone else for me, in Mahler give me Rattle.
I seem to have read that the 7th symphony is thought in some quarters to be problematical. If this really is any kind of current view, I simply cannot understand it. These days Mahler in general is surely no more controversial than Brahms - indeed probably a good deal less, in proportion as Mahler's merits are less eminent and consequently more tolerable. Mahler's symphonies contain great internal variety and contrast, but his idiom has a strong unity about it for all that, and I can't see that the 7th is any exception. If asked to name a partial exception I would suggest the 6th, excluding the 8th from the question on the grounds that it is an oratorio and not anything that I would myself call a symphony.
There is a liner note with the set, and one that I find irritating as being partly rather good and partly rather bad. It is bad as a piece of commentary and criticism: it provides meagre information about the music together with jejune sales-talk puffing the performance - `Rattle evokes the fanciful character of the music most poetically.' Do you tell me that now? I'll let him know. `It invites no half measures and receives none in Rattle's exciting and convincing interpretation.' Give us a break. On the other hand the author's estimate of the symphony itself seems to me fair and just. The know-all way he contradicts Deryck Cooke is intolerable, but when it comes to the bit I think he's right. When he declares this symphony to be lyrical, attractive and easy to come to terms with again I agree with him. Whatever you think of his effort, even in this inexpensive format you have the opportunity to read it not only in German, but also in French, and it may be that Uebersetzung and traduction reduce its gaucheries in English.
With this acquisition of the 7th, my collection now includes all the Mahler symphonies, including the fragmentary 10th and the Song of the Earth. As I mentioned above, I now have Rattle in two of the series, but altogether there are nine conductors in my little Mahler folder, and only two others put in two appearances. I am dearly fond of Mahler, but not a devotee of the kind he so obviously inspires and unlikely ever to be one. For a comprehensive knowledge of Mahler's discography you must ask elsewhere. However I know him well enough, and from a variety of interpreters, to have a very clear personal concept and idea of him, and for what it's worth Rattle embodies that idea more than any conductor has done since the palmy days of Klemperer and Bruno Walter themselves.