Of Mahler’s nine, ten, or ten-and-a-half symphonies (take your pick), it’s the Seventh that often gets the least love. Along with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Seventh forms 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 having recorded them, we get a variety of readings. I remember one critic long ago explaining that the symphony was a recounting by Mahler of his trip to the countryside, complete with his packing of suitcases, traveling along rural roads, along pastures, and on to his destination. Other critics see its five movements more generally as a journey from dusk until dawn or a nightly walk into morning, a kind of eccentric, extended nocturne.
This Arte Nova reissue of the Seventh from conductor Adrian Leaper performing the work with the Gran Canaria Philharmonic Orchestra brings us yet another realization of the music, this one at low cost. At best, however, I would describe Leaper’s performance as cautious. It’s certainly sturdy and straightforward, but not entirely distinctive.
Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote his Symphony No. 7 in E minor in 1904-05, and admirers sometimes refer to it as Lied der Nacht (“Song of the Night”), probably in part because of its two Nachtmusik (“Night Music”) movements as well as its stylistic evocation of night.
Leaper opens the long first movement with an abundant degree of atmosphere and then moves into the whirling night music with relative ease. Mahler certainly intended it as a movement of contrasts, from its erratic nervousness to its moments of extreme stillness, and Leaper makes the transitions well enough, if not so memorably.
My own favorite performance of the Seventh Symphony is by Bernard Haitink in an old Philips analogue recording now out of print. Haitink, too, might face the criticism of being too straightforward, but he had the magnificent Concertgebouw Orchestra working with him, making the music glisten and shine like the stars. By comparison, Leaper’s Gran Canaria Philharmonic is merely competent.
Of the two Nachtmusik movements that flank the central Scherzo, the first one is more jaunty, a march into the night, and the second a more serene serenade. Leaper takes both of them almost perfunctorily; they’re still curiously lovely, just not particularly distinguished. I would like to have heard either a little more of Mahler or a little more of Leaper in this music. Instead, it’s all a bit detached and bland.
Leaper’s handling of the Scherzo, while not as imaginative or energetic as I’ve heard, is probably the best thing about the performance. The conductor creates and sustains typically bizarre Mahlerian moods that range from humorous to grotesque to sinister.
The lively, vigorous finale brings us back into daylight, and whether Mahler meant for us to take it in a positive manner or ironically is anybody’s guess. Surely, “the dawn comes up like thunder,” as Kipling wrote. This final chapter is mainly light and cheery, which is what we hear from Leaper and his forces, with some mild grandeur along the way. Mahler and Leaper end the work in a brief, shining moment of glory that remains quite satisfying.
Arte Nova made the recording in 1995 at the “La Nave,” El Cebadal, Los Palmas de Gran Canaria, about a year after Maestro Leaper took over as Chief Conductor of the Filarmonica. The sound, miked at a moderate distance, displays a fairly good depth of field, a favoring of the upper midrange in the frequency balance, and a slight edge to the strings. The dynamic range and impact could be stronger, clarity greater, bass deeper, and resonance less. So, while the sonics are not at all bad, they are, like Leaper’s performance, sort of middle-of-the-road. Even the cowbells sound barely audible in the distance.