Mahler’s Seventh Symphony
A major survey of the discography by Lee Denham
The following is taken from the full survey which can be downloaded here.
In 2020, it was decided at MusicWeb International that the time had come to update the late Tony Duggan’s surveys of the Mahler symphonies, still some of the most popular sections of the MWI ebsite even after nearly ten years since his sad passing. Since then, revised surveys of the First Symphony, Fourth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde by me and my distinguished MWI colleagues, Ralph Moore and the late Brian Wilson, whom we also sadly lost in 2021, have all appeared. It says much for Tony’s legacy that the effort to update his work has taken more than one colleague years to complete, a task that is still ongoing (Marc Bridle is in the process of producing what will undoubtedly be definitive surveys of the Sixth and Tenth Symphonies, too). Since I was entrusted with the First Symphony, I have now turned my attention to the Seventh and decided to keep the same format as before, which was revised after much constructive feedback from the MWI readership. In some respect this is a bit of an overkill, since there are around one hundred fewer recordings to consider of the Seventh Symphony, but I wanted to make it as easy as possible for the reader to be able to navigate the somewhat lengthy articles by providing consistency.
As before, I do not intend my own surveys to be a replacement of Tony’s own uniquely perceptive articles, but merely to provide a different take with perhaps an emphasis on the past ten years, which, of course, Tony could not consider. Nor is it an attempt to review in depth every single recording of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony ever issued although, rest assured, I have tried my hardest to track them all down. As before, this article has been split into four sections, the first being a comprehensive index of all the reviews included, followed by a brief introduction to the music, a short section on transcriptions and other arrangements, before the main narrative, which is of the very many recordings this work has received that I have managed to get my ears on – good, bad, indifferent, in poor sound or otherwise, where I have tried to give the reader an idea of the various merits of each and, perhaps, to guide them on which are the best seek out and investigate further. As always, all the opinions below are solely my own and if I have missed out any reader’s favourite version, or have slighted one in any way, then I will apologise at the outset and have, in mitigation, offered a second opinion with a link to an original review by a colleague (if available) from MusicWeb’s extensive archives – just click on the REVIEW hyperlink by the relevant recording to access it. As with every one of these surveys, the moment it is published new recordings will be released, adding to the narrative of this fascinating symphony, and I will read my original notes and wonder if there was any wisdom at all in my proclaimed judgements. As such, this will be revised in due course and I would therefore be very grateful to anyone who is kind and patient enough to point out any errors that I – and I alone – have made.
As with the First Symphony, I have retained a system whereby I have attempted to grade what I consider to be the representative recording of each conductor with a mark out of 10, which I hope will give the reader some kind of guide to my own reaction to the performance. For example, the 8/10 awarded to Hermann Scherchen’s studio recording from 1953 reflects how impressed I was with the overall performance, interpretation and playing from that era, as well as the importance of the recording, but that mark clearly doesn’t reflect SACD sound quality – which, of course, it is not! The sound quality of each performance is usually mentioned in the narrative, as is whether a performance is live or studio, mono or stereo, which is noted in the brackets after the listed recordings, so if a reader wanted state-of-the art-sound with no audience noises, a live mono recording from the 1950s is clearly not going to pass muster, no matter how good the performance is. I am therefore relying on the reader to exercise his or her own judgement in these cases, too. However, as a rough guide, any recording that scores an 8 or above is, in my opinion, distinctive and any under 5 poor and to be avoided.
When surveying the First Symphony, I spent a long time trying to work out a narrative and my cause was both aided and hampered by multiple recordings by the same conductors. I considered having an historical category, recognising that for some people Mahler’s music demands modern sound so these should be separate, but then I wondered how I was to treat some of the earliest protagonists of the piece, such as Bruno Walter and Jascha Horenstein, who had both historical mono recordings as well as later versions (of the First Symphony) in more-than-acceptable stereo sound. In the end, I decided on a loose historical narrative, which I have retained for the Seventh Symphony and so start with the first recording available (of Hermann Scherchen’s in 1950), but then concentrate on the rest of that conductor’s recordings before continuing with the next conductor to make a recording (i.e. Hans Rosbaud in 1953) and so on, with the aim of attempting to trace how interpretations of Mahler’s work have changed (if at all) down the years, as well as individual conductor’s interpretations. As before with multiple recordings by the same conductor, I have highlighted in bold the version that in my opinion is the one the reader should seek out, usually with an explanation in the narrative as to why one is preferred over the other(s). At the end, there is a brief conclusion where I list the recordings that I would grab if the house was burning – each one of these recordings have an ‘**’ next to them in the main narrative to alert you to them as I go along. I have also decided to include a ‘wild card’ category too on this occasion for a bit of fun, so that I can also mention those recordings which can never be a central recommendation, but still have something special and unique to say about this marvellous symphony. Personally, I hope you find the following of interest and enjoyable.