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The Bernstein Legacy VII: Mahler's Seventh Symphony

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
The Symphony No. 7 was the first installment in Leonard Bernstein's Mahler cycle.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

The Bernstein Legacy VII: Mahler's Seventh Symphony

A nocturna; triptych: the cover art of the 1985 Mahler Seventh, the composer (right) and a feathered friend.
Art by Erte © 1985 Deutsche Grammophon/UMG


It all started here. This recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 7, made Dec. 3, 1985 with the New York Philharmonic in the dry and less than legendary acoustics of (what was then called) Avery Fisher Hall, was the first of Leonard Bernstein's final cycle of Mahler symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon, a series that the great conductor and composer would work on for the rest of his life. And it's a winner.
The Seventh is the dark horse among Mahler's symphonies: unloved by many critics and greeted with puzzlement by listeners. Its five sprawling movements point a path forward that Mahler never lived to follow. It is a work  of dark and mysterious shadows and unlikely orchestrations, music that continues to sound fresh and innovative a century-plus after its premiere. It is a big, dark, murky work, with an unusual ending: the last movement banishes night for the blazing heat of the noonday sun, a seeming repudiation of everything that came before.
The first thing that catches the ear is the woodwinds. Not the tenor horn, but the tone of Stanley Drucker's clarinet, leading the counter-theme in the first section of this movement. He, Jeanne Bextresser (principal flute) and Joseph Robinson (principal oboe) make the big impression playing the insistent answering theme and propelling the ensemble forward into the series of off-kilter march tunes that vie for dominance in the opening movement.
In this recording, that movement is a rocket-ride forward, taken at an unexpected, fast clip by Bernstein. (Yes, he takes the decelerando passages, including the rising figure for trumpet, clarinet and triangle at an appropriate pace too, but the forward energy still remains. One can smell, even feel the exertion on the podium at this tempo, the tension and drama released in the big brass chords in its climactic moments, and the thunder of strings, percussion and trumpets is the music of triumph over nightmare, and a hint of the light to come at the end of the work.
Once again it is the solo horn of Philip Myers and the chorus of bird-like chirps and twitters in the winds that starts things in the second movement. Labelled Nachtmusik, this is essentially the first leg of a giant A-B-A structure at the heart of this symphony: two slow movements flanking a Scherzo. Taking the listener by the metaphorical hand, the orchestra, led by the steady tramp of the first cello (Lorne Myers) takes the listener on a literal walk through the woods at night, a steady and determined tramp with pauses for eerie night sounds and dream-like moments of interlude.
Tap. Tap. Lurch. Roland Kohloff's delicate timpani strokes launch this unconventional, phantasmagorical Scherzo, marked Schattenhaft or "shadowlike" on the printed score. Spooky carnival violis, ululatig bassoon and bass clarinet and a haunted, almost atonal feeling permeates the movement. Bernstein manages the trick of making the tempo sound slack and loose even whie maintaining tight control. His instincts remain sure and unerring as he guides the orchestra to the relief of the wind and violin solos before starting the carousel up again. The dance retreats four times to the relatively tonal haven of the trio music before the ectoplasmic ballet finally stutters and stops.
The fourth movement is the second Nachtmusik, an impressionistic romantic serenade meant to evoke oars moving through dappled, moonlit water. Bernstein and the Philharmonic are at their expressive best here. Mahler adds guitar and mandolin here, and with extensive opportunity for the first violin he creates a romantic atmosphere that one might argue is on a par with the love-song of the Adagietto from the Fifth. All of the menace of the first three movements are seemingly forgotten. Under Bernstein's hand, music surges and swells gently and lyrically, with hints of the day that is about to dawn.
The timpani and brass lead the charge into the thunderous, blazing opening of the final Rondo-Allegro. This may be the most misunderstood and excoriated movement of any Mahler symphony combining a surging major-key brass fanfare a summer jubilation of beauty and violence interrupted on occasions by storms of cascading brass and wind.  The opening horn theme of the first movement surges again and again, yielding repeatedly to the insistent energy of a churning rhythmic figure in the strings. All players are pushed forward hard by the aggressive timpani. Bernstein goes for broke here, bathing in these crashing breakers of sound and sailing smoothly through the thick orchestral textures, Mahler's design: of two large outer movements connected by a central bridge, comes out in glowing colors and bright major key light.

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