Mahler: Symphony No. 7 (HDCD review)

Bernard Haitink, Concertgebouw Orchestra. HDTT HDCD190.

During the Seventies and Eighties, the heyday of the audiophile, when the major record companies were releasing a ton of great classical recordings every month, there were three conductors who reigned supreme: Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), the more glamorous of the bunch; Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony (Decca), the more dynamic of the group; and Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw (Philips), the more literal.

Looking back, I certainly have favorite recordings from each of these men, but the conductor whose recordings give me the greatest continued pleasure today is Haitink. I suspect it's because he did the most to let the music speak for itself, and his recordings tend to wear the better for it.

It was in the mid Eighties that I had the pleasure of hearing Haitink and the Concertgebouw in person playing the Mahler Seventh Symphony. It was, I thought, a rather low-key rendition, yet one of the most persuasive I had ever heard. So it delighted me to see that HDTT, who transfer older recordings in the public domain to disc and to upload, had remastered a version of the Seventh with Haitink from the Eighties that I had not heard before. (He has recorded it two or three times now, with the version I like best being an early recording available only in a complete box set from Philips.) The version we get here is one HDTT transferred from a live radio broadcast tape and probably represents something close to what I heard live.

The Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies form a middle trio of Mahler symphonies, all of them purely orchestral, with the Seventh being the oddest of the group. Even more so than most of Mahler's works, its five movements are open to multiple interpretations, and with seemingly every conductor on the planet anxious to record them, we get the piece in a variety of readings. I remember one critic long ago remarking that the symphony was actually a recounting by Mahler of his trip to the countryside, complete with his packing the suitcases, traveling along the rural roads, along the pastures, and on to his destination. Whatever, I wasn't quite buying it.

Haitink takes the long opening movement at a measured pace, patiently, lyrically, moving through the first two-thirds of it before becoming more animated and insistent. The second movement is the first of two "Nachtmusik" sections flanking the central Scherzo. Haitink invests the curiously marchlike rhythms of the first one with an appropriately eerie quality, the cowbells playing a less prominent role than in other performances. After that, Haitink plays the Scherzo in fits and starts, Mahler requesting the movement to sound "shadowy and not fast." Haitink ensures that it is a fitting follow-up to the preceding movement, if anything a little creepier. The second of the "Nachtmusik" segments Haitink handles more delicately than the more bizarre first one, this time as a kind of romantic serenade. It's a beautiful and all-too-brief intermission in the otherwise eccentric goings-on. Then both Mahler and Haitink cut loose in the Rondo-Finale, the most extravagant and vivacious portion of the symphony, although I have to admit the conductor tends to rein things in a tad too much for my liking. Mahler allows everything we've heard previously to come into play--from horns to cowbells to Wagner--and I would have enjoyed hearing Haitink having a little more fun with it.

The sound, recorded live in 1983 and transferred by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) from a two-track radio broadcast tape, is more close-up than most Philips Concertgebouw recordings. As such, there is not as much of the ambient concert-hall bloom we usually hear from this source. Instead, we get a bit more orchestral depth and a slightly stronger impact in the music. Although there are times when one might wish there were a bit less upper-bass overhang, generally speaking this is clean, reasonably clear reproduction, with a wide stereo spread and a realistic presence. Because the recording derives from a live performance, there is some inevitable audience noise--coughs and wheezes and the usual applause at the end--but none of it is particularly distracting.

I'm not sure this recording would displace my previous top choices in the Seventh; I still like Haitink's earlier Philips recording, Solti's electric Decca rendering, Abbado's exciting DG account, and Inbal's steady, dependable Denon product. But for fans of Mahler and/or Haitink, this live recording has the advantage of reliable playing and good sound. What's more, the HDTT disc (or download) is the only version of this particular Haitink performance currently available.

For further information on the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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