Many regard the seventh as the most perplexing of Mahler’s symphonies. Coming after the extreme pessimism of the sixth, it appears to revert to the pastoralism of the third symphony while maintaining undertones of terror and insecurity. The two Night Music segments that interleave the three main movements may remind you of the Blumine section that Mahler inserted in his first symphony, only to remove it as a bucolic distraction.
Where is Mahler going in the seventh? The only musician to understand it on first hearing was Arnold Schoenberg, who paid literal tribute to its textures in his seminal 12-note work, the Serenade, opus 24. Schoenberg saw it as the gateway to modernism. Other acolytes, Bruno Walter among them, refused to conduct it.
There is no wholly recommendable performance on record, though Tennstedt and Kubelik are close to irresistible and Chailly’s second cycle in Leipzig is convincing. All things considered, I am inclined to endorse Ivan Fischer’s new release as the best Mahler 7th on record.
Fischer plays slow and loose with his tempi, sometimes extending the low brass to lip-bursting point, but he treats the symphony as a story to be told and what comes over is a vivid account of an artist’s life, errors and all. Unlike other maestros, he does not try to improve Mahler. If some of the composer’s decisions are questionable, so be it. The Budapest Festival Orchestra are fabulously flexible, joining in what feels like a voyage of discovery, a walk on a rickety bridge above a croc-infested creek. Strong stuff.