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CD Review

Gustav Mahler

BR Klassik 900132

Symphony #6

Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Daniel Harding
BR Klassik 900132 82:28
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from ArkivMusic.comFind it at CD Universe Find it at JPC
Accentus Blu-ray 10309

Symphony #7

Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Riccardo Chailly
Accentus Blu-ray ACC10309 LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from ArkivMusic.comFind it at CD Universe Find it at JPC
Also available on DVD ACC20309:
Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe - JPC

The liner notes for Chailly's live recording from the Leipzig Gewandhaus of Mahler's Seventh have this to say about the conductor's approach – Instead of viewing this music as personal confession – a mirror of autobiographical tragedies, inner turmoil, and anticipated catastrophes – Chailly returns the focus to the music's purely compositional qualities: the innovative formal complexity, harmonic ambiguity, refined use of instrumental sound, and inexhaustible imagination of Mahler's symphonic worlds.

It is hard to know what to make of this. Of course, music does have purely compositional qualities, and the list given is a fair description of the compositional qualities of Mahler's symphonies in general, and the Seventh in particular. But compositional qualities are not an end in themselves. They typically serve an expressive purpose (and of course music can be expressive without being autobiographical – Mahler's Sixth, the so-called Tragic, was written when he was rather unusually contented).

A little further on the author (Julia Spinola) says that Chailly takes the music at its word, which "rescues his Mahler interpretations from false pathos and sentimentality" and allows the music "to be experienced as a natural phenomenon, a world quite capable of speaking for itself without the assistance of well-meaning interpreters." I am sorry to say that this is nonsense of the first order. Music can't speak for itself. It has to be performed, and any performance that is more than getting the notes right is an interpretation. Chailly is no less of a "well-meaning interpreter" than anyone else.

So – on to the music! Chailly's interpretation certainly favors lucidity and clarity over high drama and anguish. He is very successful at bringing out Mahler's superb orchestration and at times the symphony sounds closer to a sinfonia concertante than to a symphony (thanks in part also to some fine and sensitive filming from the team led by Nyika Jancsó). One of Chailly's great strengths is coordinating an intimate conversation between soloists across the orchestra. This comes across particularly clearly in the Andante Amoroso (the second Nachtmusik).

Chailly's conducting is not cold, but he does avoid what some would describe as Mahlerian excess (and what others, of course, would describe as the essence of the composer!). Lovers of the kind of approach favored by Bernstein and Solti will be disappointed. Frankly, they may have a point. Take the first movement for example. The three marches have great forward momentum and impulsion, but they lack a certain bite and edge. The first Nachtmusik and the Scherzo are played very revealingly, but without the undertones of menace that I was expecting to hear. Chailly's night is not "dark and full of terrors", to borrow a phrase from Game of Thrones. Still the Rondo-Finale ends with all the affirmation one could want!

Daniel Harding and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks share Chailly's preference for lucidity and clarity, but their performance is not on balance quite as successful. The best moments in the first movement (to my ear) are in the other-worldly sections in the middle of the movement (the cowbell sections) – some of Mahler's most contemplative music, played with great sensitivity. But what Harding doesn't manage to convey is how this section, and the Alma theme, contrast so powerfully with the grim marches that drive the movement.

Harding positions the Andante before the Scherzo (as Mahler himself did for the first three times he conducted it). The movement is played with fluidity and gracefulness, but the Scherzo lacks the element of the grotesque that makes the contrast with the Andante so telling. One characteristic of Harding's conducting is an apparent unwillingness to commit to strong accents (of the type so beloved of traditional Mahler conductors), which makes the music sound rather smooth and emotionally understated. The drama comes back a bit with the opening bars of the finale. This movement contains much more emphatic contrast than its predecessors, but it is still missing that element of exaggeration that I think is so important to Mahler – a case in point is the rather flattened entry of the harps after the second hammer blow, which it is hard not to hear as a missed dramatic opportunity.

Both recordings have very fine sound – CD for the Harding recording and a choice between PCM stereo and DTS-HD surround sound for the Chailly Blu-ray (which is also very well-filmed). I think that almost every Mahlerian will want to buy the Chailly performance of the Seventh. I am not so convinced by Harding's Sixth, however.

Copyright © 2015, José Luis Bermúdez