Review: Mahler Symphony No 7 - SBOV/Dudamel - DG Download
Mahler: Symphony No 7
Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela
The Mahler cycle Dudamel undertook with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and SBOV was lauded and we have been gradually been able to see why. We have already had releases of Mahler 1, 5 and 9 from this conductor - though not all from the live cycle. This recording is live, given in Caracas in March 2012. I didn't like Symphony No 1 much but seldom do and No 9 struck me as missing some essential maturity and reflection, No 5 was one of the recordings which launch the conductor and the orchestra onto the highest trajectory: it's a symphony they play well enough but I didn't find much in it to regain my enthusiasm for this over-played work.
The first movement begins without the mystery that some have brought - as usual the brass of the SBOV are bright and bold. The Dude’s control of this opening, through the accelerando and sudden return of the horn is on the verge of blunt but it works. The delicately balance between monumental, ardent, grandiosity and cartoon is well handled and his expertise is soon obvious as the music quickens into the allegro proper - this is wonderfully elastic and I know this is bold but I imagined this is how Furtwangler might have dealt with this symphony’s chopping and changing - underlining here and there but catching the listener unaware with detail and nuance.
The blowsy horns and strings at the second’ish subject are melting and a tribute to his orchestra in terms of control and his vision in terms of the delicate balance of the movements architecture. This music becomes the lynch pin of the drama. DG’s live recording has caught the brass in marvellous voice as I said but the orchestral balance is impeccable too - one tiny but telling the tuba’s support in the following tutti’s is worthy of that great tubist Thomas Keller - a foundation stone of the orchestra sound.
The rhetorical middle section of the movement has defeated many - fragments mix in a way that confuse and alter the experience of time. So as we get into the tranquil trumpet led section on great repose in this uneasy work and slip through into one of Mahler’s most ethereal of pastoral moments - things feel very much in control but pushing forward. There’s much to admire in Dudamel’s handling of the the strings - letting his wind players breath these fragmentary passages. The Star Trek trumpet call is subdued and the gentle swell to the heavenly is appropriately divine.
There’s a great deal here which I think is the best of Mahler - the Seventh representing the culmination of everything he’s been trying to achieve in the previous 6 symphonies. If I was only to have one Mahler symphony: this would be it.
The trombone apes the “tenor” horn and the music is darker as we recall the opening in more serious vein. Here the delineation of SBOV brass sections is sensational and as we close on the development section, the tension builds thanks to strings which are now somewhat backward in the sound balance. The climax builds - and tips over into a riotous joyful explosion of sound from this great and big orchestra. Marshall discipline is imposed by the composer and the conductor responds. It can have the feel of the fairground until it gets moving. Once the composer gets us back to a reposeful state we can reflect how delicately and quickly Dudamel has dealt with these skittish moments. As things hot up marches become more grandiose, strings soar and sing and the woodwind band interject to counter every string phrase. The pacing here is very finely judged the music sails along without any conductorial highlighting - it’s wonderfully fluid. The grand brass gestures, building up to a harmonic dam burst, are the high point of this movement and whilst Dudamel doesn’t have quite the emotional release here as my favourite in this movement (Boulez believe it or not) he does lift us higher and slower on the roller coaster, but we can’t quite see the top. With Boulez this moment is a blessed release from some weighty tension that has been brewing since the first horn call, with Dudamel there’s a moment of glorious flight here. Each is perfectly realised of course but rather different in effect. The SBOV take up from their conductor and the glories of the last few pages are marked with this happy band’s razor sharp articulation and uncanny ability to play accurately, happy and euphorically.
The middle movements of this symphony are mysterious and contrasting. If this work is a journey through night then it is through a world of varied and surprising dreams, but whatever the impetus - these are movements which explore Mahler’s creative powers.
The first Nachtmusik has an opening horn call which thanks to it’s use in an advert for motor oil pervaded my youth. The atmosphere at the opening is febrile and filled with bird song. What only becomes clear on repeated listening is that is something of a symmetry to this movement which is confounding to the idea that is is just a stream of consciousness, a steady flow of musical ideas. Dudamel handles it very well - bringing character and accentuating difference without the rush to the monumental which sometimes mars Mahler recordings. There’s much to admire in Bernard Haitink’s more recent thoughts in a Proms interview that we should be concentrating on the introverted Mahler not the extravert. Dudamel does just that but more than most he has alert players who can slip into a tango, a waltz and a march with the necessary ease. There’s some wonderful orchestral colour here which the engineers catch brilliantly.
The Scherzo presents more of a challenge and here the orchestra star - this busy movement is full of the off-beat, off kilter and whirly-gig music that Mahler made his own (until Shostakovich at least). The strings play with fantastic discipline here - given that this is a live performance - the woodwind might not phrase in the manner of some bands, but they do listen to each other. This is not anonymous playing but proper concerted Mittel Europe ensemble playing. They are an orchestra stealing up on the rails of world class and I’m reluctant to say this but they’re better under Dudamel’s baton on this evidence than the Berlin Philharmonic are if their recent Strauss recording is anything to go by.
In Dudamel’s hands this movement flickers with the night’s inhabitants, its darkest moments are - to my ear not from a world beyond but a world beside us - like fire flies in the gloom. The effective lumpy renderings on some of the versions I’ve heard (and having had something of an obsessional interest in this work I’ve heard a lot of lumpy Sevenths). The grotesque is put to one side in favour of something a bit more exploratory, explanatory and frankly looking deeply into the wood it finds natural in its wonderment, not supernatural.
The second Nachtmusik is a movement of some classical charm and whilst the temptation has been to make it into more than it is, Dudamel approaches it with the easy charm it deserves. The soloists at last get their chance to show their character - so there was perhaps method in Dudamel’s earlier constraint. The way the movement’s simple lines are shaped feels entirely natural and against raised form the angst -ridden there’s much to enjoy here. There’s air and despite the supposed darkness, a lightness around the music. This is a charming place to be not just in the rehabilitation of the this symphony but of Mahler as a whole. A new Mahlerian style which demonstrates the good here but in doing away with the great, at least eschews a style which is set on monumentality and profound drama at all costs. The soloists are very fine here but perhaps more important is the way that the strings, winds and brass support them - nimble and restrained.
The finale is according to many inspired by Der Meistersinger. I’ve pondered the links but to be honest don’t get much further than that. This is a circus - not I think to be taken as seriously as it is taken - but most profoundly for Mahler it is to be enjoyed. Too much of Mahler is framed or defined by angst. Here we have a symphony written by the composer at the height of his powers and before he was hit by the two great tragedies of his daughter’s death and his own terminal diagnosis. So sit back and enjoy the ride.
Like all conductors I’ve heard except the late much missed Giuseppe Sinopoli, Dudamel fails to enjoy the full quality the woodwind writing in the second half of the opening salvo. That’s my only complaint about this magnificent recording (and it’s common to every recording I encounter). I only follow scores but wonder how many times we miss little wonders like the patch of delicate filigree woodwind just after rehearsal number 225. That gripe aside - and it is slight - the movement moves with pace and increasing excitement all coming from a pretty straight reading of Mahler’s most euphoric construction. It’s a odd movement full of false starts and dead ends and yet as it builds these seem part of a vast pattern too big to be seen from the viewpoint of the casual observer. There’s much to enjoy and Dudamel allows his players time to play without letting the journey sag.
About halfway through Dudamel press the pace hard and allows the orchestra full voice in the tutti that then collapses under it’s own weight back to trills and fragments. Here we encounter the fullest glory of this modern recording in a spacious acoustic. One could wish that all recordings had this level of detail - but it is a forlorn hope. With the bit between his teeth the conductor and his band send us into the final five minutes with an acute judgement of pace and dramatic orchestration. As the tutti build and the full orchestra is heard and the nonsensical “sort of variations on themes or bits of them related to something by Wagner” plays out we get sense truly of Mahler’s potential to speak in plain terms. This excitement is purely musical without any transcendental or authorial programme and these forces realise it with aplomb and with mannerism.
Bravo the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela and Bravo Dudamel!
Bravo the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela and Bravo Dudamel!