MAHLER - Symphonies 7-9 Signum Classics SIGCD362 [DM] Classical Music Reviews: February 2016 (2023)

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 7 in E minor (1904-1905) [87:40]
Symphony No. 8 in E flat major, ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (1906) [97:57]
Symphony No. 9 in D major (1908-1909) [95:52]
Sally Matthews (soprano) – Magna Peccatrix
Ailish Tynan (soprano) – Una pœnitentium
Sarah Tynan (soprano) – Mater Gloriosa
Sarah Connolly (mezzo) – Mulier Samaritana
Anne-Marie Owens (mezzo) – Maria Ægyptiaca
Stefan Vinke (tenor) – Doctor Marianus
Mark Stone (baritone) – Pater Ecstaticus
Stephen Gadd (bass) – Pater Profundus
Philharmonia Voices; BBC Symphony Chorus; Eton College Chapel Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
rec. live, May-October 2011, Royal Festival Hall, London, UK
Reviewed as a 24/44.1 download from Hyperion Records
Pdf booklet includes sung texts and translations

Given my bruising encounter with the first instalment of Lorin Maazel’s Signum Mahler cycle (review) I quailed at the prospect of listening to this third and final one. Maazel was never popular with audiences and critics on this side of the Atlantic; his spats with musicians didn’t endear him to UK orchestras either. That said, on a good night this divisive maestro could do no wrong. His superb Philharmonia Mahler Third and his live Concertgebouw Sixth – the latter part of a centenary box from RCO Live – are ample proof of that.

Maazel recorded two earlier sets of Mahler symphonies, first with the Wiener Philharmoniker (CBS/Sony) and then with the New York Phil. I’ve not heard any of the second, on the NYP's ’s own label, as it wasn’t widely available; however, I am familiar with his WP performances, and they range from middling to good. I also have memories of Maazel conducting a pretty decent ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ at the Royal Albert Hall in 1980. As for this live Philharmonia cycle it's been issued in three separate boxes; I missed the middle one, which includes symphonies 4 to 6, but Stephen Francis Vasta’s damning review dissuaded me from trying it. That said, I never pass up the chance to hear Mahler’s Eighth, hence my decision to review this final set.

First up is the Seventh Symphony, which clocks in at a respectable 87 minutes, but it feels a lot longer. That’s hardly an objective critical yardstick, I know, especially when Otto Klemperer’s classic EMI/Warner account – which I like very much indeed – plays for 100 minutes. Maazel, like Leonard Bernstein before him, became very slow in his advancing years; certainly, the Adagio here is as turgid as it gets. Full marks to his doughty players, though; they must have thought they’d stumbled into a life-sucking swamp.

The two Nachtmusik movements are marginally better – there’s some lovely woodwind playing in both – but it doesn’t take long for Maazel’s lugubrious manner to reassert itself. It’s hard to believe this is the same conductor who recorded that taut, electrifying Sixth in Amsterdam just a few months earlier. Back to the Seventh, and the wall-eyed Scherzo also succumbs to the conductor’s life- and interest-sapping pace. Even the Rondo-Finale, which begins well enough, gives up the ghost after a while. Incidentally, the Signum recording is good, if not spectacular, with plenty of bass weight and fair perspectives.

This has to be one of the dreariest Mahler Sevenths I’ve ever heard; it’s perverse and, despite its uncontroversial length, it feels horribly protracted. There are so many fine alternatives in the catalogue, among them Claudio Abbado’s warmly expressive and very human Chicago account for Deutsche Grammophon; then there’s his ‘mighty, long-shadowed’ Lucerne video for Euroarts, although it’s compromised by less-than-stellar sonics (review). It’s interesting to compare the two, for one has a softer, sunnier disposition than the other. Whichever version you prefer Abbado is a sure and steady guide in this quirkiest of symphonies.

One of the most satisfying Mahler Sevenths out there is Michael Gielen’s splendid Hänssler account with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg (review). It’s tempting to dismiss these provincial radio bands, but the passion and polish of this one is just astonishing. Shortly afterwards Gielen recorded another Seventh, this time with the Berliner Philharmoniker; that strikes me as a rather unyielding performance, and it certainly doesn’t supplant his earlier one in my affections (review).

As it happens Gielen’s two recordings of the Eighth Symphony (Sony and Hänssler) are also worth hearing. His Mahler has been criticised in some quarters for being 'grey', but I find his directness most refreshing after the slug and bloat of late Bernstein and others. And even if Maazel’s Veni, creator spiritus is unhurried it doesn’t fall into that last category. The soloists make a solid, well-blended team and there are more than enough voices in the various choirs. The Festival Hall isn’t the ideal venue for the piece, but the engineers strike a good balance between weight and detail; the organ has real presence and the marvellous bells rise out of the mix with ease. That said, the choral climaxes and the female soloists in full cry can sound a little fierce at times.

What Maazel may lack in creative fire – he’s no Solti – he makes up for in wonder; it’s a while since I’ve heard this opener sound so inward, although John Nott achieved something similar in his recent Tudor recording (review). So, a promising start, but then there’s still so much to come. Part II is otherworldly, its mystic landscapes awash with iridescent colours and quiet epiphanies. Antoni Wit really emphasises those qualities in his fine reading for Naxos (review); indeed, he manages to coax some very unusual sonorities from his orchestra. Maazel is spellbinding too, and much of the credit for that must go to his players; they’re as rapt as one could wish.

The stars of this performance are the choruses, who always sound crisp, clear and utterly engaged; they’re also wonderfully intense when it matters. What really surprises me though is the feeling of being there; I know it’s a live recording, but even so there’s a rare sense of total connection here, of a profound musical experience gratefully shared. I was gripped to the very end. And what en end it is, a genuine apotheosis so carefully prepared for and so triumphantly delivered. The soloists seem transported, the choirs too, and the organ adds its mighty voice to a finale of shattering range and power.

What an experience that was, and how I wish I’d been in the hall that night. There are a few truly great recordings of this masterpiece; among them is Jascha Horenstein’s unforgettable one, recently re-mastered by Pristine. That said, I’ve rarely been so comprehensively unseam’d by a performance of this heaven-storming symphony as I was by Maazel’s. It’s not a perfect reading, but it's so implacable, so revealing, so right that I’m tempted to say it’s a great one. In that vein don’t overlook Gustavo Dudamel’s cracking Caracas video; well played and sung it blazes with extraordinary conviction (review).

It wouldn’t have been wise to segue straight into the Ninth Symphony after that, and I didn’t. What I did do, though, was reflect on the conundrum that was Lorin Maazel. One only has to trawl through his discography to find a number of classic recordings, among them his recently reissued Sibelius from Vienna (review). Similarly, one doesn’t have to look too hard to find some ghastly things; indeed, there’s one right here. Maazel was erratic and terribly arrogant, but anyone who can deliver a Mahler 8 of this calibre deserves respect, even if it’s grudgingly given.

There are many excellent recordings of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, stretching from Bruno Walter's - made with the WP on the eve of Anschluss in 1938 - through to Sir Mark Elder's, recorded with the Hallé in 2014 (review). For a good overview of this - and all the Mahler symphonies - see Tony Duggan's fine MusicWeb survey. Among the more recent stand-outs are Alan Gilbert's with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (review) and Bernard Haitink's with the Concertgebouw; the latter is included in the RCO box I mentioned earlier. Then there are Abbado's various recordings, but avoid his disastrous Euroarts video with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (review); i'd also steer clear of Gustavo Dudamel (review) and Iván Fischer (review). Fans of Otto Klemperer will be pleased to know that his fabled Ninth is in the same re-mastered box as his Seventh.

The Andante comodo of Maazel's Ninth is a treat; it has a strong pulse and the Philharmonia are both supple and trenchant. I did wonder whether dynamic contrasts were a little overdone, but I soon realised they fit well with his overall conception of the piece. Also, this opener has a wonderful feeling of surge and retreat, of memories picked up and discarded. Most important, there’s a sinew and strength to the tuttis that I like very much indeed. No ineffectual hand-wringing here, this is Mahler at his most confident and forthright; and that’s just the way it should be played. Then again, the refined stoicism of Haitink and the RCO in 2011 is very special, too. In general Maazel's performance is much closer to Gilbert's in shape and spirit.

I find the Ninth one of the most difficult symphonies to review, not least because it has so much to say. Not all conductors have the patience to listen - the brusque, even peremptory, Fischer comes to mind - but Maazel gives Mahler all the time and space he needs. After all, these are profoundly moving conversations – angry, tender, defiant, accepting – and it’s usually the more seasoned Mahlerians who succeed in crafting them into a coherent and compelling whole. He may be maddening elsewhere, but Maazel really has the measure of this epic score. Just listen to how he shades and projects the closing moments of the Andante comodo; the air of quiet summation here is simply heart-breaking.

As you may have gathered this is a rather good performance. Even though Maazel is brisker than some in the Ländler-laden second movement he’s also sharp-eyed; the advantage of such a forensic approach is that no detail or nuance goes unremarked. I do like Maazel’s robust, no-nonsense way with this music, which is so much more eventful and engaging than Fischer’s run-through. Indeed, there’s an ease and affection to the music-making here that will surprise those who feel Maazel was a chilly old cove at the best of times. As for the recordng it's not too closely miked - as often happens with live concerts - so individual timbres and colours are easily discerned. The skittish woodwinds in (ii) are partciualsrly well caught.

There’s nothing cold-blooded about the Rondo-Burleske, which has life and lift aplenty. Once again I was struck by the versatility and skill of these players; both here and in the Adagio they seem able to draw on a very deep well of inspiration and stamina. The paradox of this great farewell is that, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, it's both an end and a beginning. As with that extraordinary Eighth the audience seems utterly enmeshed in the unfolding drama. Maazel, at his seamless and finely calibrated best, delivers a finale of long-breathed loveliness, of evanescent splendour, that resonates in the mind long after the last notes have faded. Thankfully there's no applause.


What is Mahler symphony 7 about? ›

Mahler himself conducted the Seventh only once more, in Munich, a few weeks after the concert at Prague. It is still the least known of his symphonies. The Seventh is a victory symphony, not a personal narrative but a journey from night to day (it is sometimes called Song of the Night). The focus is on nature.

What is the best recording of Mahler's symphony No 9? ›

Karajan's Berlin Philharmonic recording of Mahler's earth-shattering Symphony No. 9 won the Orchestral Record of the Year at the Gramophone Awards in 1981, and Bernstein picked up a Grammy in 1993 for his remastered 1979 recording.

What is the most famous piece by Mahler? ›

Das Lied Von Der Erde (Song Of The Earth)

Why is Mahler so great? ›

Mahler was principally celebrated as a great conductor during his lifetime; his pioneering methods of rehearsing set the standard for the rest of the 20th century. His major appointments included the Vienna Opera, the Met and the New York Phil.


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