This most problematic of Mahler’s symphonies happens to be my favourite. Sure, the three middle movements are dark and very moody, yet terrific nonetheless, but the outer movements contain some of Mahler’s most brilliant music. These are notes penned by a composer completely at home with the symphonic form. I say that in opposition to many who feel that the ‘problems’ with this brazen child begin with the opening euphonium solo and end with umpteenth brass fanfare of the riotous Finale. However, it is because of these very idiosyncrasies, combined with amazing invention and orchestration, why I love it so much.
My mainstay has been the Abbado/CSO/DG, a very well played performance, if a little self-effacing, but shrouded in mediocre sound. My bias for the best in orchestral playing — and perish the interpretation — compelled me to get the much-hyped Abbado CD. It works as a performance, thrilling the listener with great playing. Only when I heard a bootleg of Horenstein/Philharmonia from a late 60’s Prom (now released on BBC Legends) did I realise just how much there is beneath the notes. A fantastical world bought clearly to the surface but with some shaky ensemble. A big gaffe on the opening euphonium solo grates on me, so I generally leave this one for when I’m in a generous mood.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been a big fan of the Tilson Thomas/LSO/RCA. This got paddled in some media. They’re wrong. I am no fanboy of Tilson Thomas, but he does come off well on record (remember his Rite/BSO/DG done when he was just out of short pants?). His Ravel CD, also with his then home orchestra, the LSO, is also very fine. On the Mahler 7, the LSO members play like giants. The inspiration and the execution is certainly the best this symphony has seen. From Ian Bousfield’s opening euphonium solo (now principal trombone with the Vienna Phil) to the trumpet section heroics of the last movement, the playing demonstrates that, when focused, this orchestra has few peers. So, it was interesting that Tilson Thomas felt it necessary to record another 7th so soon after his 1999 release. A must, though, to finish off his new cycle with his present band, the San Francisco Symphony. How does it match up?
Well, very well. The recording is even finer, taken from live performances in Davies Hall. This SACD Mahler cycle (backwards compatible with your standard CD players) boasts fantastic sound, natural, balanced, and with the smoothest detail. No etch, no brightness, just lots of bloom, bass and bang! The interpretation has not changed much, but Tilson Thomas does add some very effective accelerandos in both the opening and closing movements. After some very up close and personal listening, I find that the ensemble of the SFSO is not quite up to the heroics of the LSO (with the same concertmaster). Close, but not quite. Soloists, too, do not have the same ‘character’ as the individual soloists of the LSO. As such, many of the LSO solos will hold your attention a little longer. However, the very small blips in no way should deter you from buying the CD. Having only this 7th in your library will still give the Mahlerian all you’ll need for the complete experience.