Fischer's Glorious Mahler Seventh

The first and only time I heard a live performance of Mahler's five-movement Symphony No.7, from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, I left Davies Symphony Hall confused. The bad press that the 70+ minute work has received for over a century, mainly for its innate ambiguity, convinced me that it was, at best, a problematic work—one that Mahler might have eventually revised had he lived long enough. But after listening to DSD128 files of Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra's new recording of the symphony for Channel Classics, released March 29 in SACD format, I've come to consider it a somewhat shy flower that puts on a brave face and remains in the shadows until a strong conductor coaxes it into the light and convinces it to share all of its bloom and fragrance.

Of sunny bloom, Mahler's Seventh has a lot, especially in its fourth movement (Nachtmusik II) and portions of the finale. If you've got a sound system that can do full justice to a huge Mahler orchestra, you'll hear an extended conclusion that starts jubilant, happy and carefree, and ultimately lets loose with a kitchen sink of sounds that include tubular bells, percussion, and every means of exaltation you might imagine save hundreds of choristers praising the heavens. True, these are not the sounds of Christian spiritual transcendence and deliverance that Mahler shares at the end of his two choral symphonies, the Second and Eighth. Nor does the Seventh end with anything approaching the Fourth symphony's childlike view of Christian paradise. Instead, the Seventh's music is far more personal, and aspires less to the universal. That isn't to suggest that human celebration and jubilation aren't something worth trumpeting about. But the Seventh is ultimately a far more secular and personal affair than some of Mahler's other creations.

It's also more ambiguous. What is that strange, quasi-Asian dance that enters around 11:15 in the finale? As the movement continues, it's hard not to wonder if Mahler is equivocating or stalling. Is he simply having a hard time letting go of the pain that he expresses, in typical fashion, at the symphony's opening, and that always seems just around the corner in so many of his compositions? Does he truly believe that the joy he is expressing is his to enjoy? Or is he fearful of fully surrendering to the experience of unmitigated joy, lest that joy be superseded by the pain that he expressed so clearly in the two works he completed right before Symphony No.7, Symphony No.6 and the four Kindertotenlieder?

Whatever was going on in Mahler's mind and heart while he composed, we in 2019 are at least able to hear Symphony No.7 without getting too bent out of shape by his references to Wagner's opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Quotations from the music of other composers have become far more common in the music of the last 111 years, and most of us have moved well beyond getting upset at the thought of a Jewish composer quoting the beloved music of a rabidly anti-Semitic composer whose music eventually became symbolic of the preposterous concept of Aryan purity and supremacy—a concept that remains alive and equally unwell in the United States.

Iván Fischer is sometimes criticized (rightfully) for prioritizing sheer beauty of sound over emotional expression. Here, however, his love for Mahler's music comes through so strongly that his conducting sweeps you away. Jared Sacks' engineering is, as always, superb. The silence and clarity of the high-resolution DSD format convincingly conveys the depth and breadth of Budapest's Palace of Arts and the sheer force of the orchestra. The big climaxes—there's also one at the end of the first movement—are thrilling. This is a wonderful recording.

Long-time listener's picture

"I've come to consider it [the 7th] a somewhat shy flower that puts on a brave face and remains in the shadows until a strong conductor coaxes it into the light and convinces it to share all of its bloom and fragrance."

I, on the other hand, immediately found it the most immediately communicative and appealing of Mahler's symphonies. I'd heard the 9th decades before, and the 4th, and the 2nd, and got nowhere with them. Then I heard the opening of the 7th playing in a music store and thought, " Mahler writes music I can listen to."

But I find that his 7th makes much, much more sense when conductors employ broader tempos and give it more room to breathe, especially in the first movement. In an Amazon review a few years ago I wrote, "If "tradition," which says that this movement should be played at about 20 or 21 minutes [as Fischer does here], is right, then Boulez is wrong, since he takes 23 1/2 minutes. However, it is this tradition that has given us endless recordings of first movements in Mahler's 7th that are made into shrill-sounding, headlong rushes toward its conclusion (and given Mahler's orchestration, I mean really shrill), in which musical events stream past us like confetti streamers, going by so fast that they have no chance to register, in which trumpet motifs and string figurations can hardly be articulated clearly by the players, and in which those melodic motifs are trivialized by the fast, jaunty tempo."

I still feel this way, which is why I'll give this recording a miss. Beyond Boulez and Maazel, Mehta also delivered a surprisingly apt reading with the Israel Philharmonic.

foxhall's picture

I streamed this and thoroughly enjoyed it but the only recording of the 7th that I've found completely captivating is the Cleveland Orchestra / Boulez (DG). It pulls me in every time since it was released.

I truly love Budapest/Fischer's Mahler 3 and keep going back to it but the 7th is so challenging.

I'm going to give it another listen next week.

I have never heard Mahler 7 live and I think I need to do so at some point.

Ali's picture

I enjoy both performance and sound quality which was very natural and meanwhile had excellent dynamic and resolution/transparency. Listene to it twice one after another in one morning with a cup of coffee via Tidal! Thanks indeed.

Robin Landseadel's picture

I've got the SACD of Ivan Fischer leading the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Mahler's Symphony #2, didn't leave as much of an impression as Bernstein on record and MTT & the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in the flesh. On the other hand, I've always responded positively to the nocturnal ambiguities of Mahler's 7th, as performed by nearly anyone. A favorite experience was of Solti/Chicago in oversaturated audio technicolor via synthesized surround sound, back in the music room of College of the Sequoias around 1973. It's the most "Hollywood" of all of Mahler's scores.

mtrot's picture

On the back of the case, there is a statement that it will play on all CD players, but I do not see a CD logo, which is usually there with hybrid discs.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I don't recall the CD logo - what is a CD logo? - that you refer to. It's a hybrid. All Channel Classics SACDs are hybrids. Why would you think that they would lie to you?

To my knowledge, the only company that issued non-hybrid SACD discs was Sony - they seemed determined to kill the medium - and that was well over a decade ago. Telarc once issued both CD-only and hybrid SACD of the same title, but that didn't last very long.

mtrot's picture

Well, it's actually the compact disc logo that I was thinking of. Just look at the back side of the case of most any hybrid SACD. Along with the SACD and DSD logos, there is usually a compact disc logo or "CD Audio" printed there also, as well as the word, "Hybrid". Most of my hybrid SACDs are like that and all of my Living Stereo hybrid SACDs are. Conversely, the reviewed disc does not have hybrid printed on it, nor does the compact disc logo appear. Hence my question.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

You are correct about the logo.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Darko says ..... "Nothing, nothing beats the sound of CD" :-) ..........