Symphony No. 7 in E minor
Review By John Shinners
SACD Number: San Francisco Sym. 821936-0009-2
"Problematic" seems to be the adjective of choice among critics to describe Mahler's Seventh Symphony. As with his Fourth, Mahler composed the Seventh a bit backwards. He wrote the two middle Nachtmusiken or Serenades first and then puzzled for a year over what to put around them. In the end he bookended them with two somewhat ungainly outer movements and sandwiched an eerie Scherzo between them. The "problem" is both how he fit the symphony together and how to make the disparate parts coalesce in performance.
The tone of the opening movement resembles the Third Symphony's martial character. A sad horn melody first establishes a melancholy mood, but soon brass fanfares, both close and distant, interweave with a melody in march time. A conductor's challenge here is twofold: how to hold together the shifting moods of the movement so that it makes linear sense, and how to keep all the voices of Mahler's complex orchestration audible. Tilson Thompson achieves this double goal with admirable skill, keeping the momentum of the music going and letting all the players of the San Francisco Symphony, especially the brass, shine. As has been the case with the other symphonies in this cycle, he excels at judging the tempo and balance of the quieter moments, such as the hushed string interlude that falls over the movement just before the recapitulation of the opening horn theme. If the movement's emotional climax seems to arrive several minutes before it actually ends, I blame this more on Mahler than on Tilson Thomas. This is one of Mahler's more unwieldy movements that, like the finale of the First Symphony, wants to end several times before it actually does.
The second movement, a Nachtmusik marked "Allegro moderato," is another march, but this one lyrical and swaying with nothing bellicose about it, though a sardonic edge often flares in it. Its mood contrasts with the first movement in much the same way that the themes of the fifth-movement finale jump back and forth between the grand and the intimate. I like the lilt of Tilson Thomas's tempo here; it's pastoral but also captures the whiff of nocturnal mystery hovering over the serenade.
To get to the second Nachtmusik, we have to whistle past the graveyard of the Scherzo marked "Schattenhaft" — "shadowy," befitting of night music, but also "spooky." It's a brilliantly orchestrated waltz macabre briefly lightened by a trio although something sinister always lurks just below its skin. While I can think of eerier renditions (Rattle's recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony comes to mind), Tilson Thomas vividly evokes this rustling, scurrying music that reminds us of things that go bump in the night.
The gentle serenade that follows, marked "Andante amoroso," is practically a handbook of Mahlerian mannerisms. There are hints of the Third Symphony, a snatch of the Fifth's Adagietto, birdcalls twitter in a falling three-note motif that will later appear in "Der Trunkene im Frühling" from Das Lied von der Erde, a guitar and mandolin appear, reminding us Mahler's rich imagination as an orchestrator. The musicians play especially beautifully here, particularly the woodwinds, and Tilson Thomas's expressive control is superb: listen, for instance, to the wonderful balance among the players as the final, ravishing minute of the movement fades into nothing.
The finale is probably the most contentious thing Mahler wrote. Some people hear it as a fitting, joyous burst of daylight after the night serenades that precede it. Others think it is a playful parody with its quotes from Wagner's Meistersinger and perhaps Lehar's Merry Widow. Others just think it's a mess: one early critic called it "wretchedly scatter-brained." (James L. Zychowicz's informative survey of the critical reception of the Seventh is on-line at "The Mahler Archives":
To me it's the most charmingly silly thing he ever wrote. Grandiose full orchestral fanfares erupt only to collapse into playful dialogues for a handful of instruments. Ideas start, get forgotten, and then remembered. Its mood swings from the pompous to the intimate without a pause. It's as if everyone is having too good a time playing music to muster the seriousness needed for a really grand finale. Basically the finale is a spirited argument in rondo form over how this thing should end: the brass want triumphant, martial fanfares; the strings and woodwinds prefer a causal promenade, all slides and trills. The brass win in the glorious end, but not before the rest of the orchestra convince them that the march and the stroll can coexist. It's the kind of rowdy musical mélange that Charles Ives would have appreciated. Tilson Thomas's approach here is one of unrestrained jollity. He beautifully captures the antic character of this conversation while maintaining a sense of the whole — no small feat since the orchestra's mood swings so wildly.
Both the hybrid SACD and the regular stereo sound are spectacular. In SACD, the balance among the orchestral forces is very lifelike — and totally thrilling in the finale — and the sense of dimension across the stage is very convincing. This depth is apparent, for example, in the way melodies pass from instrument to instrument in the Scherzo. Like the other works in the San Francisco's Mahler survey, this is a live recording but there is not the faintest hint of audience noise.
Many industry experts are reaching the conclusion that the SACD format is a failure. For instance, apparently neither Circuit City nor Bestbuy now routinely stock SACD discs. It's not hard to understand why the format faltered: the discs were never marketed with much enthusiasm, most listeners weren't interested in buying new CD decks outfitted to play the SACD format, and record companies' commitment to repertoire recorded in SACD was lukewarm. But when you hear the consistently spectacular sound that the San Francisco Symphony's engineers produced for the SACDs in this series you may heave a small sigh that not all classical CDs can sound this good.
Tilson Thomas and his San Franciscans are now nearing the end of their Mahler cycle. Only the Fifth (recorded last September), the Eighth (due in the orchestra's 2008-09 season), and the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth (recorded last April) are left of the symphonies, though the project will now also include Mahler's orchestral song cycles. As with so many of the recordings that precede it, this account of the Seventh is one to treasure; it demonstrates once again that Tilson Thomas and his San Francisco players are bred in the bone to play Mahler.