Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Hermann Scherchen
It's really uncanny, but what we have here is essentially Michael Gielen's interpretation with inferior playing and sound. Of course, Hermann Scherchen came first, so maybe the previous statement gets it backwards, but the fact remains that both conductors share similar strengths: an excitingly cogent, unsentimental approach to the first movement, superb realizations of the creepy first Nachtmusik and scherzo, sweet but not too schmaltzy fourth movements, and a finale that's not afraid to make a big noise at a moderate basic tempo. Scherchen's at his best in exploring the nooks and crannies of Mahler's lavishly colored orchestration (especially in the second and third movements), and even if his winds, brass, and timpani are by no means first class, they play with enthusiasm and acceptable accuracy. In fact, this is the best (and most idiomatic) of Scherchen's Mahler recordings, and the most important as well in terms of the history of the work on disc. It's held up amazingly well over the years, and while it certainly can't be recommended as a first version, it remains a remarkable Mahlerian achievement for a Viennese production in 1953. So many "historical" productions have nothing musically significant to recommend them beyond the mere fact of their age, but this excellently remastered performance belongs in the collection of anyone curious about the discography of this symphony.
========= from the cover ==========
It was as a violinist and violist that the young Hermann Scherchen gained his first professional experience on leaving school in 1907, earning his living by playing dance music in night-clubs and, at the same time, appearing with the Bluthner Orchestra, the Krolloper, the Deutsches Theater and the Philharmonic Orchestra, depending on what he was offered. In this way, he built up an enormous repertory extending from operetta melodies to the classics of the orchestral repertory and Richard Strauss's symphonic poems, on which the ink was still barely dry at this time. Although he did not always agree with the style and interpretation of the different conductors under whom he worked ('strange men appear before the orchestra'), he learnt from their example what one should not do and what an orchestral player expects from a good conductor.
Scherchen initially had little time for Mahler's protege, Oskar Fried, and what he termed his 'Berliner's glib arrogance' ('I thought people shouldn't talk so flippantly about music'), yet the first Berlin performance of Mahler's Seventh Symphony under Fried's baton in 1911 was to prove one of the most seminal experiences of the young violist's career: 'But - here was Mahler with the powerfully confessional music of the opening movement, the two strangely self-absorbed Nachtmusiken, the wildest of desperate Scherzos, and the brash 'American' finale, with its suppressed Viennese tenderness. The vast spaciousness of Mahler's symphonic vision was effortlessly opened up to me - nothing was too long, nothing too insignificant, nothing too over-weighty in this 80-minute symphony! It began on a note of such unprecedented and vital intensity that, from the time of my first encounter with it onwards, it continued to resonate in my mind's ear (in spire of the fact that I did not hear it again until I recorded it 45 years later!) [,..] NO ONE could escape from the spell of this music in the orchestra when its relievo-like contours were realized with such burning intensity. We bore it for the one and a quarter hours that it lasted - no, we did not bear it, we LIVED it with breathless devotion.' (The recording to which Scherchen refers here is the present release, which he made with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra in 1953.)
Mahler's Seventh Symphony was also a key experience in the life of Arnold Schoenberg, who wrote to the composer following the local premiere of the work in Vienna in 1909 to say that, whereas his initial enthusiasm for Mahler's other works had tended to cool after a time, in the case in the Seventh 'I am now really wholly yours. [.. ] I reacted to you as to a classic. But one who is still a model to me.' From now on, Mahler was one of the household gods of the Second Viennese School.
Mahler wrote his Seventh Symphony during the summers of 1904 and 1905, beginning with the two Nachtmusiken and adding the first, third and fifth movements the following year. In contrast to his early symphonies, Mahler offered his listeners no programme on this occasion to assist them in their understanding of the piece. Only in the case of the Nachtmusiken does Alma Mahler report that her husband had been 'beset by Eichendorff-ish visions - murmuring springs and German Romanticism' when composing it. It is surely no accident that the horn calls of the first Nachtmusik suggest a nocturnal changing of the guard, while cowbells conjure up an image of the wide open spaces of Nature. The mandolin, guitar and harp of the second Nachtmusik evoke a serenade. Yet these images are not so much stages in an internalized programme as atmospheric portraits or, rather, a series of studies on the subject of night, a series complemented by the Scherzo, headed 'Shadowy', which adds a further, demonically ghost-like facet of night to the piece.
Described by Richard Specht as a 'three-movement intermezzo', these inner movements are framed by two others that could hardly be more different, with the austere and dissonant strains of the opening funeral march offset by a jubilant Rondo-finale of a kind rarely found in Mahler's ceuvre. The composer himself is said to have commented on it: 'What does the world cost?' Immense formal variety and harmonic writing so advanced that the existing tonal system comes close to breaking down are contrasted with the apparently uncritical adoption of antiquated conventions: it is this heterogeneity that has confronted critics and audiences with such intractable problems. By contrast, 20th-century musicians have long been fascinated by such a mixture of styles and flouting of expectations: with his collage-like structures and use of quotation, Mahler anticipates many of the trends of musical modernism, as Scherchen himself recognized: 'If it was Mahler's Seventh that first introduced me to the new feeling of art that began to inaugurate Expressionism, it was the latter's fiery breath which, fully kindled, struck me with irresistible force in the case of Schoenberg's works.'
-Eva Reisinger (translation - 1996 Stewart Spencer)