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



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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa