MAHLER: Symphony No. 7 in E Minor – Berlin Philharmonic/ Michael Gielen – Testament SBT 1480, 80:28 [Distr. Harmonia mundi] ****:
Conductor Michael Gielen (b. 1927) has enjoyed a long association with the music of Gustav Mahler, especially in collaboration with the radio orchestras in Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Vienna, and the Cincinnati Symphony. The Mahler Seventh offered here in live concert from Berlin (21 September 1994) marks Gielen’s last-minute replacement of an ailing Klaus Tennstedt. The symphony itself, composed 1904-1905, demonstrates Mahler’s knotty use of “progressive tonality,” opening in B Minor, modulating to E Minor, and eventually making its way in the Rondo – Finale to C Major. A welter of contrary emotions suffuses this music, moving from exaltation and pantheistic mysticism to periods of bitter scorn, folk tunes, and equivalents of Whitman’s “barbaric yawp.” Gielen himself comes to Mahler by way of Schoenberg, much as Rene Leibowitz had two generations prior. The convergence of the sublimely metaphysical with the garishly vulgar appeals to Gielen, who argues that most of music affects “the solar plexus.”
After the lugubrious Langsam opening of the first movement, the ensuing Allegro takes an aggressive stance, particularly the trumpet “stopped to a high C-sharp,” as Mahler put it. Typically, the music marches in wild and drunken frenzies, interrupted by wildly anguished yearning and calls from Nature. All of the instrumental choirs play at virtuoso levels, the tessitura demanding and the shrill, even piercing orchestral textures fiercely competitive. Gielen’s concept, much like his predecessor in Southwest Germany, Hans Rosbaud, moves with direct assurance in all parts.
The first of the two “Night Music” sequences establishes a sense of foreboding of watchful waiting. Mahler spoke of the influence of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch on his consciousness. The harmonic daring of the martial progression alerted Hermann Scherchen that “we had our first whiff of a new artistic feeling, one that marked the transition to Expressionism.” The central movements conspire to create a C Minor/D Minor/F Major series of clashes that smolder of wraith-like armies moving through some unnerving chiaroscuro of the soul. The ensuing Scherzo plunges deeper into the nightmare world of personal demons, literally a devil’s waltz in mockery of civilized Vienna, fashioned in the spirit of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. The acerbic BPO strings and oboes shudder and cause us to do the same. The final blow on the snare drum with brass chord seals the lid on the coffin. A thinner texture marks the second Nachtmusik sequence, the violin, guitar and mandolin’s contributing to the amoroso possibilities of the night.
It seems trite to accuse the Rondo – Finale of “discontinuity,” since Mahler exclaims his “bright day” in diverse colors borrowed from Wagner, Lehar, and Mozart, proceeding by means of some Roman march that invites comparisons to the late Respighi. Mahler fuses the current march with that from the first movement, inviting a cyclical dimension into the midst of his harmonic voyage toward the major tonalities. The laughing woodwinds and rustic strings invite comparisons with Mahler’s Wunderhorn settings, but the vision has been jaded by too many incursions of the Abyss. It has been a monumental excursion into the universe of the soul, and the contemporary critics lauded Gielen’s “precise, intelligent and extraordinarily gripping Mahler interpretation.”