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 Or is he fearful of fully surrendering to the experience of unmitigated joy, lest that joy be superseded by the pain that he expressed so clearly in the two works he completed right before Symphony No.7, Symphony No.6 and the four Kindertotenlieder?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.

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