Mahler: Symphony No. 7 (CD review)

Bernard Haitink, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam. Philips 410 398-2 (2-disc set).

OK, so I’m thirty-plus years behind with this review. Better late than never. Not only that, the record company, Philips, has gone out of business, and the disc hasn’t been in the catalogue for over a decade. However, if you’re interested (and why else would you be reading this if you weren’t?) you can find the disc used, and ArkivMusic still makes the recording available new by reproducing it under authorization from the Decca Label Group.

Anyway, the Mahler Seventh Symphony recording in question is Maestro Bernard Haitink’s second of three stereo recordings for Philips. Haitink has always been an expert practioner in Mahler and made his first recording with the Concertgebouw in analogue over ten years before this one. Then he made present Concertgebouw recording digitally in 1982, and another in the mid Nineties with the Berlin Philharmonic. Maybe he wanted to continue recording it until he got it right. In any case, it’s his first recording I like the most for its more-vivid interpretation (unfortunately, available only in a box set of the complete symphonies); the recording under review I like second best for the sheer beauty of its interpretation and sound; and the Berlin account I like least because by then Haitink seemed to have let a lot of the wind out of his sails.

How much you will like Haitink’s 1982 account may depend upon your own view of the Seventh Symphony, one of Mahler’s more problematic and ambiguous works. As I wrote a few weeks earlier, it’s a transitional piece, connecting the darker Sixth Symphony with the triumphant Eighth. Of course, musical scholars point out how Mahler connected all nine (or ten or eleven) of his symphonies, forming one grand musical statement. If there is a grand scheme in things, the Seventh has long been the neglected stepchild of the lot. While the other symphonies get most of the love, the Seventh often goes wanting.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote the Symphony No. 7 in E minor in 1904-05, and it is probably his most biographical work. 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. I remember one critic once explaining that the symphony was a recounting by Mahler of his trip to the countryside, complete with his packing of suitcases, traveling through 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 the morning, the whole thing a kind of eccentric, extended nocturne.

So, what is Haitink’s view? It’s certainly not the high-powered outlook rendered by conductors like Georg Solti or Claudio Abbado, who point up every contrast in the work and emphasize its darker, more-bizarre side rather than its purely lighter moments. Haitink, on the other hand, seems intent on being as solid and straightforward as possible, all the while stressing the music’s expressive delights. Some listeners will simply find it slow and dull, which is probably what a lot of people would think if they had only heard one of the more dynamic readings around. In fact, Haitink did take a more leisurely approach to the symphony this second time around than he did the first time, losing a little tension along the way. He made up for it in sheer attractiveness, though.

Haitink builds his reading of the Seventh around Mahler’s two central Nachtmusik segments, which are quite magical and atmospheric. The opening movement is more progressive than most, starting out very slowly, very gravely, and building momentum. Haitink’s handling of the Scherzo is less bizarre than it is under many other batons, and even the troublesome Finale, which can oft-times resemble a haphazard succession of anticlimaxes, comes across as a well-shaped series of purposeful variations. You may not agree with Haitink’s vision of the Seventh, but it’s hard to deny it doesn’t hang together well, start to finish.

One minor drawback, however: The penalty for taking your time through this massive symphony is that it might not fit on a single disc. Haitink’s rendition takes a pair of discs, with the first two movements on disc one and the final three movements on disc two. Even so, having to change discs is a small price for so lovely a performance. Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is one of those pieces of music that begs for different interpretations, and doubtless it’s worthwhile having several versions in one’s library. For me, Haitink’s rendering is one of them.

Philips recorded the music digitally at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, in December 1982, and it was another fine job by the recording team. From the mid Sixties to the late Eighties Philips seemed able to do no wrong in the Concertgebouw. Their recordings always sounded substantial, full, deep, dynamic, ambient, and, above all, realistic. This one’s no exception; the sound is glorious. You hear one of the world’s great orchestras in all its glory, with the hall lending its hand in resonant bloom. Nevertheless, when Decca started recording the orchestra, they never seemed able to capture that same golden glow. Decca’s Concertgebouw recordings have always sounded flatter to me, closer, more “hi-fi.” Indeed, I cannot think of another recording of the Mahler Seventh that sounds better than Haitink’s ’82 digital effort, reproduced here.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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 Jon 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