The series of DVDs of live performances of Mahler's symphonies with Claudio Abbado leading the Lucerne Festival Orchestra continues apace. We already had DVDs of Nos. 2, 5, 9 -- and now comes the Seventh recorded in the summer of 2005. All of them are simply marvelous in terms of interpretation, sound and video. Abbado has proven himself to be one of the best Mahlerians of our age and I hope this series continues until we have all of the symphonies plus Das Lied von der Erde.
I have a very special place in my heart for the Seventh. It was my first Mahler symphony -- Hermann Scherchen leading the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (the Vienna Philharmonic in its other guise) released in 1950 -- and I wore it out playing it. I had no idea at the time that I was listening to Mahler's quirkiest symphony. I simply knew I loved every note of it (including the Vienna trumpeter's two cracked high C's in the last movement). Only later did I understand that the Seventh is probably the least familiar for most musiclovers and often the least-liked as well. I continue to feel it is an extremely strong work. It helps newcomers to be told that it is spooky like much of Berlioz's 'Symphonie Fantastique.' It even has a Witches' Sabbath movement (Mvt. III) even though it's not called that by Mahler. The whole symphony, though, was called 'The Song of the Night' and that pretty much sums up its atmosphere, at least until we get to the dawn and sunrise of the fifth and final movement.
As for this performance, I can't find a single thing to criticize. The tempi are perfect, the shaping of phrases and the molding of dynamics are perfect, the orchestra's playing cannot be faulted. Indeed, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra may be the best orchestra I know, made up as it is of principals from the major European orchestras, string players from the Hagen and Berg Quartets, members of Sabine Meyer's wind ensemble (she is the orchestra's principal clarinet), as well as members of the crack young Mahler Chamber Orchestra founded by Abbado in 1997, all former members of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, itself founded by Abbado in 1986. (Many of the GMJO members have graduated to important positions throughout the world.) The MCO players' skill and enthusiasm are palpable in these DVDs. I suppose when you're playing behind some of the best players in the world (e.g. Kolja Blacher, concertmaster; Natalia Gutman, cello; Albrecht Mayer, oboe; Sabine Meyer; Wolfram Christ, viola, etc.) you do tend to play above your head. As for individual performances in this DVD one must single out principal trombonist Mark Templeton (principal in the London Symphony) who plays the euphonium (tenor horn) solos in the symphony's opening measures and throughout the first movement. Trumpet Reinhold Friedrich shines in the fifth movement's stratospheric trumpet writing. And we mustn't forget the marvelous horn playing of Alessio Allegrini, principal in the La Scala Orchestra. (And although he is not named, I must also mention the excellent mandolin player in Mvt. IV who gets to play the only mandolin part Mahler ever put into any of his symphonies -- unless you count 'Das Lied' as one of the symphonies.)
Sound is exemplary. Camerawork is unobtrusive, the editing clearly in touch with events in the musical score but without jumping about unnecessarily. There is plenty of opportunity to watch Abbado, who may be one of the most expressive conductors I've ever seen.
This DVD is one to treasure. I recommend it without reservation.
TT=78 mins. Sound: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1. Disc format: DVD 9