Composed during the summer of 1905 (movements 1, 3 and 5) and from the summer of 1904 for the two “Nachtmusiken” (at the same time as the Sixth Symphony), the Seventh Symphony is a fascinating piece of work but often more divisive than others.
As the last of the instrumental triptychs of the 5th, 6th and 7th symphonies, it fascinates Mahler followers, convinced that it can leave the audience wanting more, puzzled by its formal complexity, its modernity and the apparent lack of unity in its various movements.
Featuring on the record are many great versions, among which we can cite Abbado (unforgettable with Lucerne), Haitink (dark, with the Concergebouw, and of a supreme balance with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1992), Sinopoli, deep and fascinating, Jonathan Nott or even more recently Ivan Fischer with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Osmo Vänskä and his Minnesota Orchestra, for which he has been conductor since 2003, continues a complete set of interesting Mahler works (1, 2 and 5 already released) but it is the 7th ensemble that, for the moment, seems to be the most accomplished.
What is immediately striking when listening to this version is the richness of the sound aesthetics, an opulent orchestra marked by the sounds of brilliant brass and warm strings, although they are a little behind. As such, the tenor horn solo that opens the symphony, and imprints its style on the whole movement, is undoubtedly, from an instrumental point of view, one of the finest in the discography. Would the bride be too beautiful for all that? Admittedly, lovers of more mysterious, chiaroscuro and dramatic contrasts (listen to Sinopoli!) will be somewhat confused, but the conductor cannot be accused of lacking vision; throughout the movement, he maintains this sound abundance, supported by an attentive and perfectly placed orchestra. After listening multiple times, the initial, somewhat reserved impression we have of the first moments turns into a veritable admiration for the piece which also showcases all that this first movement has in terms of modernity and a pioneering piece of work, while at the same time carefully ensuring it stays true to the piece’s continuity, in particular with the last movement.
The first Nachtmusik, in which the initial measures have to delicately balance the gradual introduction of the horns, small harmony, and tuba, starts quickly and clearly! It is night, yes, but more a Mediterranean night as opposed to a Nordic or Germanic night. Here again, we experience a high-level, seductive performance that advances and unfolds the score without accentuating its doubts or moods. So, what about the Scherzo, then, so ghostly and mysterious (Schattenhaft)? Here, the conductor chooses an extremely fast rhythm (10’47 for Haitink / Berlin, 9’52 for Sinopoli / Philharmonia, 9’27 for Kubelik / Bayerisches Rundfunk and 8’40 for our version). Needless to say, this rhythm does not allow us to dwell on the disturbing details or the half-hearted atmospheres of the score, but rather highlights the unmistakable virtuosity of the orchestra. But here again, consistency is essential with the first movements, in a vision that carefully avoids emphasizing the nocturnal aspects in favour of light and clarity. The second Nachtmusik, fully interpreted in this sense, becomes a peaceful serenade who’s impersonal, if not artificial, character is fully assumed. The few, more lyrical passages (e.g. a little before 200) are retained, however this time with beautiful orchestral colours. The tour de force of this version is accomplished in the last movement, for which the measured character and neutrality of the previous movements have already prepared in complete continuity. A lot less “shocking” than in other interpretations, the timpani do not interrupt the daydreaming … Instead, we find an ever-brilliant orchestra; no heaviness and a rare subject fluidity. The fanfare of brass instruments (e.g. 233) is restrained and simple, and the orchestra agile and virtuoso. This seems more in keeping with this movement than the rest of the piece. A great success.
So, in conclusion, what do we think of this Osmo Vänskä interpretation? It is undoubtedly an original reading, one with rich sound aesthetics that highlight this complex piece of work from another angle. A coherent vision, built with a concern for continuity and assumed neutrality, in which the last movement appears to be the most successful, unlike in many other interpretations. We may prefer other approaches, ones which better reveal the mysterious depths, the force of darkness, the sometimes military and often ambiguous character of the subject; but the more we listen, the more this interpretation proves to be convincing and fascinating. We look forward to the other instalments to come.