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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa