Mahler
Symphony No.7
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim

Recorded on 26 & 27 February 2005 in the Philharmonie, Berlin
CD No: WARNER CLASSICS
2564 62963-2
Duration: 75 minutes
Reviewed: April 2006
Mahler's lavish scoring means that any presentation of this work demands great care by the recording engineers. It is worth noting details of the composer's full, extravagant scoring: four flutes, piccolo, four clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, tenor horn, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, tambourine, tamtam, bells, cowbells, mandolin, guitar, two harps, and strings.
Not all listeners will like the very individual recorded sound presented here (from concerts it appears), but somehow it does seem to suit Daniel Barenboim's approach very well. There is a vast amount of space yet, probably through a controlled close-microphone technique, details come through that are glossed over in many a rival version. Of good points, the immense weight of bass drum should show off the capabilities of the best loudspeakers.
The very opening is slightly surprising as the atmosphere of the seemingly vast hall encroaches on the listener before the darkness of deep bass yields to the initial tenor horn solo, played immensely slowly, rising above this huge weight, woodwind cuts through acidly and supporting strings, often a vague underlying harmony in other recordings, quiver in measured agitation. The extensive first movement can take subjective 'period' interpretative moments incorporating string portamento and firmly stressed moments of anguish, but it seems to be interpreted as a Tone Poem – symphonic continuity is not much in evidence here. Most new melodies have their arrival stressed by slight tempo shifts although the unhurried deliberation of the end of the movement is impressive.
This five-movement symphony is known for (and sometimes spuriously nicknamed ‘Song of the Night’ because of) the two ‘Nachtmusik’ movements placed second and fourth. Barenboim is surprisingly languid in the first of them. I have always felt this to represent a relentless march – Hermann Scherchen in his ancient Westminster recording was superbly rhythmic. Barenboim sees the melodies more lyrically, textures are full and details like the frequently re-iterated timpani figures are part of the overall sound whereas other conductors see these as an exciting interruption, stressing the underlying pulse. What a pity that Barenboim's cowbells are so distant: such a bizarre sound deserves to be featured more positively.
The following scherzo has a livelier pace and the nostalgic secondary theme is elegantly shaped. The movement becomes more and more shadowy with the swiftly changing instrumentation giving a feeling of gentle frenzy towards he close.
The second ‘Nachtmusik’ is also fairly swift – again Mahler's taste for individual sound is less than ideally stressed – I can only hear the mandolin in its few brief solo moments. Even when accompanied merely by solo instruments, it is not very distinct.
The opening of the finale represents the essence of the interpretation. There is an exciting introduction with a realistic opening timpani onslaught, but after half-a-minute the music suddenly hastens frenziedly. Three-quarters of a minute in, the eager march theme is pulled back to a much slower tempo for just eight seconds before once more rushing ahead. I find this difficult to take – conductors like Kurt Masur and Bernard Haitink opt for an even, all-through tempo, giving a feeling of firm, decisive progress. Barenboim certainly understands the extraordinarily sudden changes of the music's mood but should they be underlined so obviously as this?
This sonic combination of spacious hall and close-up individual instruments suits the ever-changing textures well enough but halfway through the movement the return of the opening melodies finds the timpani less assertive. High percussion apart, most instruments fight their way through in the final frenetic pages – it is all there somewhere but there is an uncomfortable feeling of being close to maximum permitted volume level.
This is a challenging, very personal and clearly strongly felt performance but not everyone will necessarily warm to its subjectivity. Some reservations about the recorded quality, too, yet there are passages that reveal details that I have not heard on other recordings.

 

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