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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 7 in E minor
Düsseldorfer Symphoniker/Ádám Fischer
rec. live, 19-23 February 2015, Tonhalle, Düsseldorf, Germany
CAVI-MUSIC 8553349 [76.52]

This recording of the Seventh Symphony, released in 2016, was the first in the ongoing series of complete Mahler symphonies from the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker under its principal conductor Ádám Fischer. I have reviewed the other volumes in this impressive series so far and incidentally interviewed Ádám Fischer in the Semperoper conductor room in 2018 in Dresden.

Mahler wrote his Seventh Symphony in 1904-05 and continued to revise its scoring up until its première. By the time the Seventh was completed in August 1905, no performance had been planned, as his Sixth Symphony had not yet been given. At this time, Mahler was working as director of the Vienna Court Opera (Hofoper)and principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, so his reputation as a conductor was widely acknowledged and his compositions were starting to experience success. He himself conducted the Czech Philharmonic in the première of the Seventh given in September 1908 at Prague. He never provided a programme for it, nevertheless, according to his wife Alma, ‘whilst composing his Nachtmusiken (Two Nocturnes), he had visions of Eichendorff’s poetry, rippling fountains, German Romanticism. Other than that, this symphony is without program.’ It seems that Mahler likened the mood of Nachtmusik I to Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Night Watch’ (1642).

Fischer presides with convincing assurance over crisp, clean, expressive playing from the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker. One senses the coherence of the performance; the conductor fully understands Mahler’s intentions in this enigmatic score, giving a performance that is never overblown or garish. Fischer’s control of rhythm is noteworthy and his pacing pretty much ideal. The sound of the brass, which I can only describe as having an earthy edge, is striking throughout. Conceivably, the recording has robbed some glow from the strings, but the sound is nevertheless most creditable. Pioneering Mahler-conductor Hermann Scherchen, who recorded the score several times in the 1950s/60s, described the vast opening movement, which opens with a tenor horn solo, as ‘powerfully confessional music’. The persuasive mood of sensuality, or maybe spirituality, which is created within the predominance of march rhythms is impressive. Under Fischer, this is restless music, crammed with incident that plumbs emotional depths and ascends to the heights of exhilaration. The music suggests the alpine wanderings through the surrounding valleys, lakes and woodland which the composer enjoyed so much. In Nachtmusik I, right from the opening horn cries and distant responses, under Fischer this feels like a supernatural journey through a forest at night. There is more music here of a restless character in the raucous Scherzo marked Schattenhaft (Shadow-like) a movement notable for its disjointed rhythms. Fischer’s interpretation creates an eerie, mysterious atmosphere, like a witches’ dance, a sense of parody never far away. Marked Andante amoroso, Nachtmusik II, with its brazenly romantic melodies, is written in the manner of a Serenade. The beautiful, dreamlike state that Fischer creates is entirely captivating and his players ensure that the substantial Rondo - Finale is an expression of joy, at times wild and exhilarating. yet with an undertow consisting of what I can only describe as relief and reprieve. Executed by Fischer in thrilling fashion, the work ends in unashamed triumph. Recorded in the Düsseldorf Tonhalle, renowned for its acoustics, the sound is very satisfying. In the booklet Fischer gives his fascinating view of conducting the Mahler symphonies and Jens Schubbe’s booklet essay Mahler’s ‘Surrealist’ Symphony is helpful and easy to read. 

My first choice recording of the Seventh remains Leonard Bernstein’s compelling 1965 Philharmonic Hall, New York City account with the New York Philharmonic on CBS (Sony), the first of his two Mahler cycles. Admirable, too, is Claudio Abbado’s 1984 account with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon. Without displacing Bernstein, Ádám Fischer’s outstanding new recording of Mahler Seventh is a significant addition to the discography.

Michael Cookson

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