Déjà Review: this review was first published in June 2002 and the recording is still available.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 7
Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado
rec. live, May 2001, Philharmonie, Berlin
Deutsche Grammophon 471 623-2 
Claudio Abbado’s relationship with the Berlin Philharmonic has not always been an easy one but in the last couple of years a string of remarkable recordings has worked its way onto CD – most recently a stunning Falstaff. Now Deutsche Grammophon are set to release three Mahler recordings recorded live with the Berlin Philharmonic in Berlin and London. The first of those releases, the Third, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall, is everything I remember it being: fabulously rich in detail, profoundly moving and with a sense of perspective it is rare to find in this symphony. It is one of those Mahler performances you never forget, one to be spoken of in the same breath as Chailly conducting Mahler’s First with the London Symphony Orchestra, Maazel conducting the ‘Resurrection’ with the same orchestra, and, going further back, Bernstein’s unforgettable Prom’s performance of Mahler’s Fifth with the Vienna Philharmonic.
The second of the Mahler releases is this 2001 performance of the Seventh (the final release will be of the Ninth) and is simply fabulous, confirming Abbado as our greatest living Mahlerian. In no other performance does the poetry of this work, or its visions of Romanticism, seem so deftly caught (try, for example about 14 minutes into the opening movement and the astounding articulation of the strings at 15’18 onwards): no other conductor seems to make of this movement what Eliot called ‘time recollected in tranquillity’. The Berlin strings have an ethereal, other-worldly quality, tangible to the touch. And in almost no other performance does the immanent ambiguity of this work seem so resolved by the time we reach the end of that most ambiguous of movements, the Rondo.
Yet, this is also an intensely imagistic performance. The symbolism of the march themes, of the repeated birdsong, of echoing horns are less bewildering than they seem in less diaphanous performances, rather like looking at a completed picture rather than the sketches for one. Take the oboe duet in the second Trio of the first Nachtmusik, for example; Abbado’s Berliners make this music genuinely, and hauntingly, lyrical, something skated over by Rattle, Bernstein and Sinopoli. Move on to the Scherzo and Abbado and his orchestra take this movement’s shifting syncopations with something resembling a mist induced evening: the nightmares are fleeting, the apparitions ghostly, images are half seen. It is profoundly disturbing, striking in its anguish. Muted violins are more sinister than usual, flute and oboe more piercing than the usual jab in the dark. All of this is in enormous contrast to Abbado’s delicate handling of the second Nachtmusik with its child-like simplicity. The effect is of course magical – the sonority of mellow strings, plucked chords and yearning woodwind as objective and unique as it should be. Come to the disintegration of the coda and the sound is pure confectionary – the bird-like twittering of the flutes in their treble range and the muted violins, played here with perfect pianissimos, are simply stunningly done.
The sheer scale of what Mahler achieved in the final movement is staggering and this performance of the Rondo Finale is superbly played, quite Rabelaisian in its spirit, with an electrifying tempo swifter than either Bernstein or Sinopoli, neither of whom quite summon up the incandescence of Abbado. The contrasts are thrillingly drawn – day turns to night, hell turns to heaven and desolation turns to triumph. The virtuoso playing adds focus to this paean of celebration over adversity, and adds great contrast to what has preceded it. Abbado’s triumph is to instil some sense of purpose, some sense of reasoning to this movement’s ambiguity – and he does so persuasively. There is a real sense that Abbado treats this Finale as the forward-looking masterpiece that it is.
There is no doubt in this writer’s mind that this is one of Abbado’s greatest recordings – and one of a handful of Mahler symphonies which are truly unequalled in their inspiration. In part, this owes something to Abbado’s regained health; since his prolonged illness he has almost re-invented himself as the greatest interpreter of Mahler’s music of his generation. Nothing I have heard by Rattle, either live or on disc, remotely matches late Abbado in this music. Similarly, the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic under Abbado is finer than it has been since the days of Furtwängler, that Karajanised monochromaticism which the orchestra so often displayed now replaced by something enthused with energy and refinement. In everyway, this is a superlative record.
Marc Bridle, March 2023 – I wrote this review more than twenty-years ago! Frankly, I forgot until I read it yesterday I had even written it. As with several reviews I wrote twenty years ago, even ten years ago, I have revised my opinion of the discs and the conductors. Abbado is a case in point. Boulez is another. Unfortunately, the internet doesn’t allow me to forget what I write – so I have to live with it. There are many, many Abbado discs I would now disown reviews of (his Lucerne Mahler 2, for example – even though I was at the concert).
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