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Simon Jay Harper
All About Jazz, December 2010

Gustav Mahler’s 7th Symphony, first performed in 1908 under the baton of the composer in Prague, is felt by many to be a colorful vision of a night-time journey. The symphony (or at least the first movement) could equally give the impression of the entry to and exploring of a new city, or some kind of adventure, and so has a motivating (or “motor-vating”) side also. The work is also notable for containing parts for both guitar and mandolin, yielding a quasi prog-rock element (literally), depending on how they are recorded, into the mix in the fourth serenade-style movement.

The recent release by Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra of this live version of the symphony has magnificent and clear (firmly accented) playing. There is the stunning three octave deep repeated figure from the strings in the tuneful and uplifting second movement (replete with cowbells: if you want “more cowbell” just turn it up), the much-praised recording of the guitar and the mandolin in the fourth movement, and the deep evocation of Mahler’s “broad daylight” at the end. For some observers it is now the copy to own (though versions by Rafael Kubeilk, Bernard Haitink, Lorin Maazel, David Zinman, Daniel Barenboim and Claudio Abbado—he is a good choice for virtually any music—have their proponents).

The recording is on the orchestra’s label, and is an example of the new trend where some orchestras are now releasing works on their own labels. If you are playing, you may as well set up the mics and keep all the money from the sales.

The symphony has high trumpet parts at the beginning, and when a trumpeter in the orchestra at the premiere challenged Mahler about it, the composer is said to have later told his wife: “He doesn’t understand the agony of his own existence.” If the trumpets are cries of despair, that feeling is soon left behind as the journey commences.

Mahler’s symphonies are dense pictures of sounds and visions, very multi-dimensional. Anything from birds to forests to startling vistas may strike the ear. The 7th is no exception, and at one hour and seventeen minutes, there is a lot of time for Mahler to describe the world here. This recording communicates all the notes: one reviewer states that he has never heard such detail in the symphony as is revealed as on this recording. It is a vibrant sound, with the added tension of being live.

Mahler was not averse to taking popular tunes and reshaping them, for example the minor key take on of “Frere Jacques” in his 1st Symphony. In the 7th, popular tunes and waltzes appear, there is a brief and beautiful three note reference to Richard Wagner, and then there is the “quote”-filled last movement of the 7th which includes an apparent gesture towards “Faniculi Fanicula.”

There is therefore a link to relatively modern popular music in Mahler. The “prog element” in the 7th arrives towards the end of the fourth movement, when the sudden, clear sound of an acoustic, rock-like guitar conjures up a flowery 1967/68 effort by the Moody Blues, as for example on Days Of Future Past (Deram Records, 1967). This is not such a far-fetched parallel: their label had wanted the band to record a rock version of Anton Dvoƙák’s New World Symphony instead. The sudden odd harmonies (and oblique popular song qualities) of this movement, coming after the more somber third movement, bring to mind the mood-changing effect of later songs in the semi-“symphonic” shape (that is, in terms of the successive keys of the songs) of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon (Harvest/Capitol, 1973).

All of these aspects are well demonstrated by this recording. The colorful clarity of Toscanini’s LPs (of Haydn and Beethoven and so on) is brought to mind, but with a lusher touch, possibly provided by the music itself as much as the orchestra.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 was originally not the most recorded of his symphonies, but it has seen quite a few recordings in recent years. This recording by Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra may be the best. The bright and fresh approach guarantees it a wide appeal. Maybe even to prog-rock fans.

David Nice
BBC Music Magazine, February 2010

…the Bavarians have the edge in every department…sympathetic strings…phenomenally clear and luminous woodwind trilling…communal exuberance…Jansens’s judgment in tempo co-ordination is superb…BR Klassik capture the full warmth of the Bavarian ensemble with its gorgeous brass edge in SACD sound…

Gavin Dixon
MusicWeb International, February 2010

By accident or design, two high profile recordings of Mahler’s Seventh, both conducted by Mariss Jansons, have been released in recent months. His Oslo Philharmonic recording on Simax (PSC1271) has garnered praise in some quarters, but is going to have to beat the odds to compete with this one, which sports both SACD sound and the revered Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Jansons uses a new edition of the score, prepared by the International Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft, and whatever its innovations might be, he directs a performance that emphasises every detail, as if striving to make audible each minute amendment and correction.

The approach sits well with the superior audio quality. On one level, the recording functions as a catalogue of fascinating orchestral details, obscured in previous recordings by poorer orchestral standards and more homogenised sound reproduction. But it is not just the details that make Mahler’s Seventh an unusual work. Jansons also brings his interpretive clarity to the symphony’s unique structure. Other conductors—and I’m thinking of Bernstein and Rattle in particular—often treat the work’s sprawling structure and wayward progressions as problems that need fixing or covering up. Their methods include faster tempos, less rubato, and emphasis on the excitement of the louder passages over the quieter meditative ones, so as not to lose the audience. Jansons takes the opposite approach. He does not apologise for anything he finds in the score. Rather, he goes to great lengths to ensure that every passage and every counterpoint is clearly articulated, skilfully phrased and propelled as if with an inner momentum.

The result demonstrates just what a revolutionary work the Seventh Symphony is, with its incongruous dance episodes, its evocative orchestration (guitar, mandolin, cowbell), its precisely notated string portamento, and its dizzying climaxes. Tempos are almost always on the slow side, which again emphasises the details at the possible expense of the whole. Adhering to Mahler’s notated rubato gives the composer’s structural thinking its due. It is found wanting but Jansons never goes so far as to offer a purely sectional structure as an alternative; the immaculate details are always part of a symphonic argument, however flawed.

While the overall sound quality is extremely high, some sections of the orchestra benefit more than others. The string sound is particularly impressive: the intensity of the high violins, the presence and timbral variety of the violas and the agogic weight of the cellos and basses. It may well be that the most radical aspect of Mahler’s orchestration in the Seventh is his use of the strings. Its sound-world relies on a complex vocabulary of counter-intuitive doublings, chord spacings and bowings. The combination of high quality audio, world-class playing and forensic detail from the podium allows each of these curiosities to shine through. Things are slightly less clear from the back of the stage, and the percussion in particular often seems muffled, or at least not given the clarity that a studio recording would have been able to ensure.

Those, like me, who are more familiar with British and American orchestras performing the work may be surprised by the central European brass sound, which can be quite nasal and vibrato-laden. Even the bass trombone solo in the first movement has a pronounced wobble. It is an upward trajectory throughout the work for the brass. The opening solo for Tenorhorn in Bb’—presumably a Wagner tuba here rather than a euphonium—has a rich tone, but amazingly vie with the woodwind. The trumpets in the first movement struggle to synchronise in a number of important passages, and the horns are on the brash side. However, the horns more than redeem themselves in the solos of the second movement, while the trumpets come into their own in the finale.

In fact, the finale is the best part of this recording. The rondo structure withstands Jansons’ emphasis on detail better than the more complex structures of the earlier movements. His loyalty to Mahler’s notated rubato pays dividends, as there are many surprises in the tempo changes that would be lost in a more four-square reading. It remains a long and challenging movement, but Janson’s balances the expansiveness with a focused orchestral sound and a clear sense of direction. The result, in the closing pages, is a paradoxical sense of inevitability, the music’s goal apparently preordained, despite its remaining unconventional and unpredictable right up to the very last chord.

Although I have mixed feelings about this recording, it has a great deal to commend it. The standard of the audio is sufficiently high to appeal to the SACD buyers who would consider it for this reason alone. I would also recommend the disc to those who have heard the work and think they know it. I was in that boat and found myself continually surprised by Jansons’ many revelations. To those completely unfamiliar with the symphony, I would have reservations about recommending this recording, if only because the interpretation is so radical. But there is an admirable honesty about every interpretive decision Jansons makes, and by highlighting the many unusual details of the score, he demonstrates just what an innovative and unusual work it is. These are not the interpretive priorities of most performers approaching Mahler’s most problematic symphony, but Jansons’ advocacy, and his multiple recordings, may yet persuade other conductors to stop making excuses for it.

David Gutman
Gramophone, December 2009

Jansons presents an urgent and brilliantly played Mahler Seventh

Jansons makes a big thing of the brief bars of dirge-like material which delay the first movement’s clinching peroration. The central Scherzo lacks the nightmarish quality promoted by most Mahlerians although it is finely articulated. The finale is breathtaking as a piece of orchestral alchemy, winds and brasses blending seamlessly into virtuoso and lustrous strings. Except that Jansons’s junketing feels strangely drained of parody. The discontinuities are handled so effortlessly that this is no longer, in Henry-Louis de La Grange’s words, “music presciently conscious of the malaise of our age” in which everything has its price and nothing is quite what it seems.

The recorded sound is state-of-the-art…and convinced admirers need not hesitate.

Jens F. Laurson
WETA 90.9 FM Blog, November 2009

Since the classical channel of the Bavarian Broadcasting Service records and broadcasts its digital channel in high-definition and surround, the recording engineers make use of the available material and issue the discs as hybrid SACDs. Jansons, not unlike Salonen, Abbado, and from the sound of it, Zinman, has a take on Mahler that is composed, rather than neurotic. He doesn’t add Angst or underline the nervous, torn, sardonic elements. The result is awfully well behaved Mahler…however, this calm pays dividends in the first four movements. Jansons offers a fluidity throughout the work that belies the Seventh’s anything but organic structure. And in the finale he offers hearting force that allows for the many subtle and unsubtle references to shine through; not just the Meistersinger bits, but also the jubilant trills from the first act finale of Tristan & Isolde and the pre-shadows of his own 8th Symphony. Then the music shudders, and, as if it remembered its roots, races down the scales to its own end, accompanied by the now familiar cowbells that ring in the oddly discordant farewell. The clarity of the structure and the precision of each instrumentalist of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra are very persuasive and just make this my first choice among the Mahler Sevenths on SACD. Where most recordings lose details like the fourth movement mandolin contribution, (usually reduced to a single plucked sound) every note can be heard with Jansons and…The point that the recording is the world premiere recording of the new critical edition of the International Gustav Mahler Society (Boosey & Hawkes, Bote & Bock) will be of interest to scholars and the few very obsessed.

Dominic McHugh, August 2009

Hot on the heels of the launch of the Mariinsky Theatre’s new CD label a couple of months ago the Bayerishe Rundfunk (Bavarian Radio) is launching its own label, devoted to making the performances of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks more widely available. Though the label’s product has stiff competition from many of the leading international symphony orchestras, a striking majority of which now have their own record labels, BR-Klassik stands out for its excellent sound quality, resulting from the orchestra already being set up to record for the radio.

There’s no sense, then, of this being an orchestra going it alone in the unknown waters of the record market, or of trying to contend with a difficult acoustic in the way that LSO Live does with the Barbican. Instead, these CDs almost uniformly have the fine-tuning and detail of the studio. And of course, that’s also because the orchestra is of such a high standard, currently benefiting from the artistic vision of its chief conductor Mariss Jansons. Jansons appears on four of the nine releases, two of which document the same Haydn performance, one on CD and one on DVD.

As it happens, that’s the finest of the performances on offer here: truly compelling, it combines musicality and heart in equal measure. Two symphonic performances begin the concert: the brief Symphony in D major, Hob. 1a:7, ‘Overtura’, created in 1777 as an opera overture, and the longer Symphony in G major, Hob. 1:88, which followed on from the Paris symphonies in 1787 by wearing its roots in French dance forms on its sleeve. Jansons’ way of making the ultra-romantic Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra create a lucidity of texture is splendid in both these works, but it’s the performance of the Harmoniemesse, Hob. XXII:14, with a secure quartet of soloists and the Choir of the Bavarian Radio, that makes the CD and DVD (the latter directed by the inimitable Brian Large) unmissable. [403571900102]

Both orchestra and conductor are on home territory with the other two releases. First is Mahler’s Seventh Symphony [403571900101], often an enigmatic and difficult work in my experience… The BRSO plays beautifully and the final apotheosis is breathtaking…Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony [403571900100]…is marvellously played from start to finish. Jansons’ interpretation is clean and fresh, taking us on a rollercoaster adventure and revealing all kinds of small details whilst maintaining momentum. Like the Haydn, it’s highly attractive.

Another aspect to the new label is BR-Klassik Archive, for which (unsurprisingly) the extensive Bavarian Radio archives have been mined for great performances of the past. The first batch of releases contains just a single disc from this series, consisting of two concerto performances from legendary pianist Marta Argerich [403571900701]. It’s worth the cover price for her visceral rendition of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto in C, in which her full-on approach to articulation markings makes one hear the piece anew, even if Seiji Ozawa’s conducting is extremely subservient to Argerich rather than interpreting the piano as part of the full orchestral texture. I was less struck by Argerich’s way with Mozart’s Eighteenth Piano Concerto—less insightful and thoughtful in delivery—but the Beethoven makes up for everything.

I’m sad not to have been able to make more of the next release, which comes under the series title BR-Klassik Wissen. This two-disc set is an exploration of Bach’s St Matthew Passion [403571900900] by Wieland Schmid, with excellent performances from the orchestra and choir under Peter Dijkstra. It looks fascinating and could be the start of an important series, but since my German isn’t up to scratch, I confess I got little out of it (there’s no English translation).

Three discs of twentieth-century music wind up the first batch of releases. Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti [403571900300] is given an emotive performance by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester under Ulf Schirmer and benefits from idiomatic singing from Rod Gilfry as Sam and Kim Criswell as Dinah, the latter especially sympathetic. Tahiti is Bernstein’s first opera, and was composed in 1952 when he was at the height of his powers on Broadway. Though only a one-act work, it’s vastly underrated, especially from the point of view of instrumental invention, and this recording—which is coupled with the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, virtuosically but perhaps a little too teutonically played—is a great way to discover the piece.

Schirmer also leads the complete performance (on two CDs) of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Des Simplicius Simplicissimus Jugend (Simplicius Simplicissimus’s Youth) [403571900301]. This complicated music drama was written during 1934-6 but wasn’t given its premiere until 1948—on Radio München. It was altered in 1955-6 and was given in Munich in 2005 in a conflated version, which is recorded here. It’s a fascinating if sometimes impenetrable piece, which benefits from a beautifully-recorded performance. Finally, Peter Dijkstra leads the Choir of the Bavarian Radio in three small-scale religious works: Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, Kodály’s Missa brevis and Poulenc’s Litanies à la Vierge Noire [403571900500]. These are haunting works, even if they don’t set the pulses racing quite as Bruckner’s Seventh or Haydn’s Harmoniemesse do; impeccable performances are found throughout, however.

Lavishly packaged and with short, if sometimes eccentrically-translated, liner notes, BR-Klassik’s new releases provide something for everyone, and are an optimistic sign for the future of the recording industry.

BR-Klassik Catalogue

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