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Hyperion Records

LSO0665 - Mahler: Symphony No 7

Recording details: March 2008
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Produced by James Mallinson
Engineered by Neil Hutchinson & Jonathan Stokes
Release date: August 2008
Total duration: 71 minutes 35 seconds

'Right from the start, with those dark, dragging rhythms, there’s a sense that something special is afoot here … Gergiev charts the whole labyrinthine course with thrilling assurance ... and the virtuosity and sensitivity of the London Symphony Orchestra—in solo or ensemble writing, or in rich tuttis—is a continual exhilarating delight. Hand on heart, I can’t think of another recording of this symphony that not only brings so many of its extraordinary features to life, but ultimately balances them so satisfyingly. Thoroughly recommended' (BBC Music Magazine)

'There is no denying the brilliance of sound and execution [Gergiev] obtains from the LSO. Gergiev's interpretation of this wayward and fascinating symphony is exciting … he casts quite a spell of lush romanticism' (The Sunday Telegraph)

'This is a terrific, gripping performance from Gergiev and the LSO of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, an edge-of-the-seat experience ... [Gergiev] brings an almost palpable darkness, fear and mystery to the three central movements, giving an impression, in the central scherzo, of hot, tormenting laser lights darting in from all angles, and imbues the outer movements with an almost frenzied momentum' (The Times)

Symphony No 7

Symphony No 7 is often regarded as Mahler’s 'Cinderella' symphony and, after the tragic theme of No 6, proves far more enigmatic. The funereal march of the opening movement gives way to the serene 'Nachtmusik' ('night music') movements, and a ghostly scherzo before culminating in a feverishly joyful finale.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
For decades, Mahler’s Seventh has been his ‘problem symphony’ – the Cinderella of the cycle. It has had its supporters too. When Schoenberg heard the Symphony in 1909 (the year after the first performance), he wrote enthusiastically of its ‘perfect repose based on perfect harmony’. But few others have used phrases like ‘perfect repose’ to describe the Seventh Symphony – and even some of Mahler’s most passionate admirers have found the structure anything but harmonious. The middle three movements, it is said, seem to belong to a world of their own – nocturnal, fantastic, sometimes sinister – a world to which the outer movements, impressive as they are, emphatically do not belong.

There are other ways in which the Seventh Symphony seems to be strangely divided. The first two movements glance backwards to the tragic Sixth Symphony. The energetic leading theme of the Allegro con fuoco first movement (after the long slow introduction) recalls the ominous march-tune which opens the Sixth; the cowbells and ‘fateful’ major–minor chord progression in the first Nachtmusik (‘Night-music’) movement also echo No 6. The Finale, on the other hand, often seems to be straining towards the confident expression of mass feeling of the Eighth Symphony – the so-called ‘Symphony of a Thousand’. According to some writers, the problem of the Seventh Symphony is at least partly explained by a letter Mahler wrote to his wife, Alma, in 1910, in which he tells her how it all came into being:

“In the summer before [1905], I had planned to finish the Seventh, of which the two Andante [Nachtmusik] movements were already completed. Two weeks long I tortured myself to distraction, as you’ll well remember – until I ran away to the Dolomites! There the same struggle, until finally I gave up and went home convinced that the summer had been wasted. At Krumpendorf … I climbed into the boat to be rowed across the lake. At the first stroke of the oars I found the theme (or rather the rhythm and the character) of the introduction to the first movement … and in four weeks’ time the first, third and fifth movements were absolutely complete!“

But the story a work of art tells of itself is often very different from the story of its creation. Many of the finest works in the symphonic repertoire have had difficult births. Sibelius’s magnificent Fifth Symphony took nearly seven years – and two radical revisions – to arrive at its familiar form; and yet the music is so organic that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t conceived in a single flash of inspiration. Mahler’s Seventh Symphony may be enigmatic, far from self-explanatory, but performed with conviction it can also be uniquely fascinating and unsettling sometimes, but far more compelling than many a more conventionally ‘perfect’ symphony. And in no other work of Mahler’s is the orchestral imagination so highly charged. It isn’t simply that the scoring includes instruments rarely seen in the symphony orchestra – tenor horn (a relative of the euphonium), mandolin, guitar, cowbells and deep-pitched bells; even the familiar instruments are made to produce surprising new colours: the clarinet shrieks and cello and bass ‘snap’ pizzicatos (the strings plucked so hard that they spring back and hit the fingerboard) in the Scherzo; the dense chorus of woodwind trills near the start of the first Nachtmusik; the deep harp tones in the second; the headlong timpani flourishes that set the finale in motion. The orchestral writing is as brilliant as it is challenging to play. If any of Mahler’s symphonies deserves to be described as ‘Concerto for Orchestra’, it’s the Seventh.

The symphony opens with one of Mahler’s most unforgettable sound-pictures: a slow, dragging rhythm the ‘stroke of the oars’ in the above quoted letter) for low strings, wind and bass drum, then the shout of the tenor horn: ‘Nature roars!’, was Mahler’s description. This music builds steadily in intensity, eventually accelerating into the Allegro con fuoco, with its energetically striding first theme. There are numerous contrasting ideas: the impassioned, slower second theme for violins (echoing the ‘Alma’ theme associated with his wife, from the Sixth Symphony), or the magical, still section at the heart of the movement. But the ultimate impression is of fierce, driving energy, culminating in an explosive coda.

The first Nachtmusik is a slow nocturnal march, haunted by distant fanfares and weird bird-calls, swinging from ghostly processional to cosy, old-world songs and back again. The Scherzo passes through rather more disturbing territory. This is a grotesque dance of death, with Viennese waltz-figures bizarrely or horrifically distorted. At first the second Nachtmusik oozes charm, the sound of mandolin and guitar suggesting a romantically moonlit Mediterranean serenade; but there are hints of malice lurking behind the smiling mask. The Finale attempts to banish the shadows, the full glare of day after the disquieting dreams of the night. But this is perhaps the most divided movement in the whole symphony. One moment it seems bent on wild rejoicing, the next the dance tunes are parodied affectionately or viciously? It isn’t always easy to tell. Eventually the first movement’s Allegro con fuoco striding march-theme is fused with the finale’s opening theme on full brass, with chiming bells. The mood seems riotously triumphant, but the very ending – a sudden diminuendo followed by a C major chord slammed home by the full orchestra – leaves a question-mark hanging in the air.

Stephen Johnson © 2007

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