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Reviews: Mahler: Symphony No. 7 - Zinman

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Review by georgeflanagin August 6, 2011 (14 of 15 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
ADHD Summary:

Of the Zinman series, this is the closest to finding its way to the absolute top of the pack in both sound and performance. This is only my second 5/5 review for sound/performance. Admittedly, I have fewer examples (6) of this Mahler symphony than I do of the ten others [counting Das Lied von der Erde], but Zinman's is my now favorite Seventh.

The Music:

Although it is the least known of Mahler's symphonies, there is little need to discuss the music. Personally, I have never found the Seventh to be difficult to understand: this symphony consists of five movements that form an arch, and the five movements have the same interrelationships as the acts in the five acts of Shakespeare's tragedies and histories. If you accept my theory of parallel design, then the third movement contains the climax, and the noblest musical idea left alive speaks in the final bars. This is somewhat different from the usual interpretation of every symphony moving like the will of Zeus to its end.

The Mahler Seventh is an abstract musical drama, and Zinman gives us his best.

The Performance:

I decided that the most meaningful comparison recordings for the SACD crowd are likely to be the Tilson Thomas / SFO recording and the Bernstein NYPO recording. The first is frequently looked at as the current state of the art, and the second as the state of the old art -- a piece of musical literature that well suited Bernstein's abilities with theatre music.

As everyone who reads these reviews knows, I spend a lot of time listening to string quartets as well as symphonies. The most successful string quartets depend on balance between the voices, and a careful give and take to allow each line to be heard. So it is with the performances of this bête noire of the Mahler Symphonies. Parts of it resemble chamber music, and nearly every member of the orchestra has occasion to either shine or have the limits of skill revealed.

But the first movement is no chamber work. Zinman hits it hard and loud. I read a couple of reviews on Amazon from writers who characterized this performance as restrained and understated. I really can't imagine what they were listening to, nor how much vodka would be required to dull the senses enough to label Zinman as withdrawn. The pulsing motif at the very beginning is presented closer to the brisk MTT/SFO performance than Bernstein's slow delivery that just can't seem to get started. The opening is much like the witches' brew in Macbeth, and it sets the stage for everything that follows. Bernstein gets through the first 26 bars in 2:16, MTT takes 1:57, Zinman takes 2:00, although Bernstein's entire first movement is not much slower overall.

The playing is top notch all the way through, not just in the first, but in all five movements. The Seventh is great showpiece for the brass instruments, and Zinman's troops are able to play a sound that is full, round, and powerful, like many of the CSO recordings during their glory years.

The first episode of Night Music is just as close to my conception of this piece as is the first movement. It is appropriately disturbing, and around bar 82 (? my counting is approximate) with the first tempo change we see Zinman's real strengths. For the rest of the movement we are treated to the sequential featured sections of the orchestra and they all sound equally good. It is easy to lose the flow of the music in this movement, but everything hangs together for the Tonhalle band. It is probably a testament to quality rehearsal time.

And now we come to the heart of this work: the scherzo. Speaking of balance, there is a tendency to have the tympani overshadow the basses in the dark opening where they play together and before other instruments join. In this recording, they are exactly in balance producing a wonderful tone that I have not observed in any of the other recordings I have.

The second serving of Night Music is a very different beast from the first, although I have heard a number of people lump them together. In this movement, we have some true calm before the storm, and the Tonhalle players show the appropriate restraint. This is truly beautiful.

The finale is probably worth the price of the entire disc. The peals of the bells (starting after bar 440 and again following 540) for once find an honest description in the words "awe inspiring." Zinman chooses a combination of rolling low bells with the higher ones, avoiding the cowbell sounds that may have been appropriate in the Fifth but are out of place in the Seventh's finale. This finale is not a place for farm animals; this is war, tragedy, and death.

After all we have to have souls made ready for the Eighth.

The sound:

After my review of Zinman's Fifth, I was worried about another episode of thundering, muddy sound. I bought Zinman's Sixth a while back, and was relieved that the problems had been conquered when they could easily have become worse considering the excesses of the Sixth.

I found the Seventh to be just about a perfect recording. It's really hard to imagine how the recording could be changed in some way to be better, at least under ordinary playback circumstances. Instead of audiophile folderol about air and space and imaging, let's just say that it is what more recordings should be.

This is a rare case where the CD and SACD layers are noticeably different, but in a good way. The CD layer is tastefully compressed, making for better listening if you don't care to have the softer parts drowned out by household sounds, or if your neighbors' houses lack structural integrity. And it makes for a very good rip-to-iPod; I do most of my performance comparisons by creating a playlist with all my chosen editions and rapidly moving to the points of comparison.

Bottom Line:

Buy it. Buy it as a gift. It could be a great introduction to Mahler, particularly if you like Shakespeare, too.

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