Mahler: Symphony No 7 - Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä. © 2020 BIS Records AB

CD Spotlight

Night and Day

Osmo Vänskä's recording of Mahler's Symphony No 7, recommended by PATRICK MAXWELL

'This is a superb recording which does full justice to Mahler's overpowering genius in such a varied and all-encompassing work.'


Mahler's gargantuan symphonies ushered in the twentieth-century with bombast and a unique sense of Romanticism which did owe much to what had come in the century before and espoused much of the ideas of Beethoven, Brahms and others, creating cumulative monuments which also deeply influenced the new music which was unleashed on the continental scene in the decades after his death.

These qualities, of a deep sense of Romanticism and particularly distinctive Mahlerian sonic world with an eye to the changing century, are especially evident in the Seventh Symphony, which is played here by the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vänskä. Despite the composer himself labelling it as his best work, and the praise of Schoenberg and Webern, the symphony has been the most neglected by conductors, audiences and commentators. The piece certainly deserves just as much recognition as the more popular of the ten works, and could easily be placed as the most important work in the middle of the watershed between late Romanticism and the ensuing modernism which would change the musical scene throughout the century. The work is fuelled by Romantic imagery, especially of the importance of the night and Nachtmusik.

Listen — Mahler: Langsam (Adagio) (Symphony No 7)
(track 1, 0:00-0:54) © 2020 BIS Records AB :

The dark opening chords lead into the beguiling call of the tenor horn, which dominates much of the first movement, which is a finely balanced mix of dark trepidation and sprawling marches, based on striking brass tunes, building up to a colossal end.

Listen — Mahler: Langsam (Adagio) (Symphony No 7)
(track 1, 21:44-22:41) © 2020 BIS Records AB :

The second movement opens with an equally mysterious simple tune which mixes a plaintive C major with premonitions of F minor.

Listen — Mahler: Nachtmusik (Symphony No 7)
(track 2, 0:01-0:55) © 2020 BIS Records AB :

A variety of folk-like melodies are then introduced, and the deep contrasts of German Romanticism come into their own, with passionate chord clashes, swift switches from minor to major, and all parts of the orchestra creating a conversation based on different tunes. It is easy to see why Mahler chose Rembrandt's The Night Watch as inspiration for this movement. As Jeremy Barham writes in his enlightening sleeve-notes, the movement is full of music that constantly surprises, as 'dashing folk-like upward leaps struggle to assert themselves amidst a turmoil of scalic figuration, dismissive gestures and angular orchestral cries.'

The third movement continues this sense of macabre nihilism, with seemingly easy-going and light tunes being shadowed by increasingly dark undertones, which propel the music forwards towards another melody and the next variation, like some absurd waltz.

Listen — Mahler: Scherzo (Symphony No 7)
(track 3, 0:56-1:43) © 2020 BIS Records AB :

The fourth movement returns to the same sound-world of the second, with the Andante amoroso marking setting the tone for a more emotional movement, which has searing moments of passion as the strings try to work upwards towards a cadence, and pervations of dissonance contrast with the seemingly serene calm which is so often disjointed.

Listen — Mahler: Andante amoroso (Symphony No 7)
(track 4, 0:01-0:52) © 2020 BIS Records AB :

The lively start to the final movement opens into a sprightly brass exposition and a triumphant sense of finality is interrupted by a more troubled and eventually jaunty passage, again fuelled by recurring melodies which are woven through different sections. This movement sees the culmination of the constant juxtaposition of themes of night and day, with neither winning out in any obvious way.

This is a superb recording which does full justice to Mahler's overpowering genius in such a varied and all-encompassing work. There is the tension of the Second, the mystery of the Fourth, and some of the bombast of the Fifth inside. Yet it is a particularly unique work as well, and one which opened the door for the dark and powerful music that would follow in the often nihilistic and dramatic decades that followed Mahler's death.

Copyright © 26 August 2020 Patrick Maxwell,
Buckinghamshire, UK






 << Home              Next review >>