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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 7 (Leonard Bernstein)


Composer: Gustav Mahler
  1. Symphony No. 7 in E minor: I. Langsam (Adagio)
  2. Symphony No. 7 in E minor: II. Nachtmusik I. Allegro moderato
  3. Symphony No. 7 in E minor: III. Scherzo. Schattenhaft
  4. Symphony No. 7 in E minor: IV. Nachtmusik II. Andante amoroso
  5. Symphony No. 7 in E minor: V. Rondo-Finale. Tempo I (Allegro ordinario)

New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein, conductor
Date: 1965
Label: Sony Classical




It’s very interesting how well Bernstein’s performances of Mahler’s avowedly more “abstract,” intellectual middle symphonies have held up in the reference recording sweepstakes. Certainly, he was amazing in the early works, and I wouldn’t want to be without one of his recordings of the Ninth, but it’s easy to forget how much attention he paid to matters such as tempo, structure, and internal logic–those elements supposedly at the heart of these less overtly programmatic, purely instrumental symphonies. 

The Seventh is one of Mahler’s most intricately structured works both within and between its movements, and Bernstein’s performances, both of them, are simply the most cogent of any available. Compared to the incredible weirdness that we’ve been subjected to since, this performance comes across as a model of architectonic logic, even austerity. For instance, Bernstein relates the first movement introduction to the ensuing allegro with the proportions of a Haydn symphony. Similarly, this really is one of the few versions of the finale that sounds completely natural, each episode logically emerging from what has come before.

Where this first version scores over its DG successor is in tiny points of detail, for not only does Bernstein capture the work’s large canvas, he also finds so many moments which, once heard, you will find impossible to conceive of otherwise. One example occurs just before figure 89 in the first Nachtmusik, an unearthly sound produced by harps and trilling oboes backed by a single, pianissimo, muted trilling viola. You can hear it in the accompanying sound sample. No other version, not even Bernstein’s DG remake, gets the passage to sound quite like this, and it’s unforgettable. Other characteristic gestures, such as the brass crescendo just before the final chord, are more interventionist, but never fall beyond the bounds of Mahlerian propriety.

The main competition for Bernstein comes from Michael Gielen on Haenssler (originally Intercord), a stunning performance that gets more of the ghoulish and ugly out of the scherzo (no one does ugly like Gielen), but then unsurprisingly misses some of the humor in the finale. Hearing Bernstein’s clangor of cowbells and chimes, you will find yourself wondering why all other versions seem to have such problems just letting the music rip the way Mahler evidently intended. Indeed, in surveying the field in preparation for this reference recording survey, I’m amazed at how many recordings of this work reveal the same issues, over and over. Well, at least they were addressed quite successfully way back in 1965, and in amazingly good sound too.

-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday

More reviews:

Tony Duggan's survey of recordings of Mahler Symphony No. 7


Gustav Mahler (7 July 1860 – 18 May 1911) was an Austrian late-Romantic composer, and one of the leading conductors of his generation. As a composer he acted as a bridge between the 19th century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century. In his lifetime his status as a conductor was established beyond question, but his own music gained wide popularity only after periods of neglect. After 1945, Mahler became one of the most frequently performed and recorded of all composers. Mahler's œuvre is relatively small. Aside from early works, most of his are very large-scale works, designed for large orchestral forces, symphonic choruses and operatic soloists.


Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990) was an American composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, and pianist. He was among the first conductors born and educated in the US to receive worldwide acclaim. His fame derived from his long tenure as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, from his conducting of concerts with most of the world's leading orchestras, and from his composition. As a composer he wrote in many styles encompassing symphonic and orchestral music, ballet, film and theatre music, choral works, opera, chamber music and pieces for the piano. He was also the first conductor to give numerous television lectures on classical music.


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