NOTES TO MY MAHLER 7th SURVEY
Equipment: Emotiva ERC-3 AES to Schiit Yggdrasil 2 to: Schiit JOT 2 with Senn HD800 / HD800S or Schiit JOT R with RAAL SR1A and Schiit LOKI + as needed. Different equipment, especially at the transducer end, can deliver different sound characteristics, vastly different with respect to the transducers. Differences among the amps are not terribly great compared to the difference in sound signatures of the HP’s.
Methodology: I never compare more than 2 or 3 recordings in a given day. That keeps my impressions relatively fresh. I generally listen all the way thru making notes during the session, but may do some quick comparison sampling between different recordings with respect to the opening and closing movements. Some of these CD’s are SACD but I can only play the 2 channel layer which, in my opinion, is the right way to reproduce music.
The RAAL’s transparency and fine detailing trumps that of either Senn, (or any other HP I’ve experienced in the last 5 years), however, the Senn’s can provide a more satisfying listening experience depending on the particulars of the recording quality. The ability to run either amp with or without Loki (thru SE or directly from a balanced signal) is also a plus (if the recording allows for it with satisfactory bass) as that removes several feet of IC’s and their respective connectors as well as the switchbox and any degradation that might be introduced to the signal.
Recorded quality is a result of many factors; sound characteristics of the venue, equipment used, the producer, conductor, and engineer’s aesthetics, and the mastering process. Recordings made 60 to 70 years ago or more most likely won’t have the transparency or wide frequency and dynamic range capability or low noise floor of those made with today’s equipment. Yet many recordings from the analog era are better than many later day ones from a listening standpoint as well as performance standpoint. Especially as some record labels it seems were bedeviled in the transition from recording in all analog to recording in all digital as well as in the transferring of analog source material to the digital domain (as in recordings that are AAD or ADD).
But comparing performances of the same work is a horse of a different color. This will boil down to the conductor’s conception of how a given work should go and its all-important execution by the musicians as well as the acoustics of the recording venue. In recording bass drums, tympani, basses, and cellos there can be wide variations in sound character and output. Some halls support and enhance the bass, some soften the sound, some sound immediate, some distant, some tight and some loose. With all acoustic instruments in various halls the sound of individual instruments can vary significantly, especially those that can produce tones below say 60 Hz.
Timings of individual works or movements within a work can vary widely. And while a one minute difference in timing between , say, any movement of any work by 2 different conductors sounds insignificant it can affect the impression it can make with the listener. And as luck would have it the comparison of the first two on this list, Bernstein / Kubelik), point up exactly what I mean. Bernstein is one minute slower in that first movement and this allows the music to breath with more drama and excitement with forward movement because of where he lingers in the score and where he picks up the pace. Kubelik’s first movement feels like it is being rushed, and yet only one minute faster.
Regarding Mahler 7, and as with most symphonies, but Mahler’s especially, the opening and closing movements are bookends that hold the work together. The inner movements in addition to providing contrast and change of pace will provide bits of material that will be built into the finale in ways not always that obvious but that give his symphonies a “rightness” of completion that’s compelling when listened to all the way through. My comparison’s focus on the two outer movements for the sake of brevity but I did listen to the inner movements as well. Pulling off successful inner movements is not that difficult with this symphony.
Some conductors may favor different placements for the string sections as well as other instrument groups. Today’s traditional arrangement of 1st and 2nd violins left, violas roughly center and right of center, cellos to the right with double basses behind the cellos. This arrangement was adopted by most American and orchestras around say 1910. I’ve often suspected the “Modern”, sometimes called “American” layout may be a tie in with the beginnings of recording music for some technical reasons, and the popular conductor Stokowski was in favor of it. The hall’s acoustic may also have a bearing on placement of all the various instrument groups for best clarity of sound presentation.
MODERN or AMERICAN LAYOUT
ORIGINAL or EUROPEN LAYOUT
The reason for separating violins and rebalancing the strings in the older style was so that if first and 2nd violins were playing counterpoint (as opposed to the 2nds simply doubling the 1sts), it would bring out and emphasize the difference in the 2 lines. Also, rebalancing the orchestra in the older style spread the bass weight sound of the string sections more equally across the stage. (Side Note: Mahler’s use of the bass drum (sometime two) is extremely varied from individual beats to drum rolls and he uses them at very loud and soft dynamics and every possible way in between the two extremes to meet the needs of the music, often just to underpin the orchestra and not just provide explosions in ffff. )
These seating arrangements are not set in stone and can vary but “European” was most always in use from the baroque thru the late romantics, but varied by, possibly, composers indications and conductor’s wishes . I have several recordings done in the European style and I believe Michael Tilson-Thomas’s Mahler cycle with the SFO uses it, as did Klemperer and several others. So if your first listen of a recording makes you think the channels sound reversed, it may just be this rebalanced placement. The only live performance I ever attended with the “European” style layout was Simon Rattle guest conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in Mahler 9 many years ago.
One final note regarding the first movement, I refer to the “Moonlight” episode which happens around the middle of the movement, roughly between the 8 and 13 minute marks where it develops a short theme that blossoms on the trumpet to sound amazingly like the opening notes of the theme from the original Star Trek TV series and as done like in the Abaddo recording, truly sounds “spacey” or ethereal at points.
Bernstein: New York Philharmonic 1965 ADD Sony : Very good sound and not just for the vintage of the recording. This was well remastered in 2009 (the complete set of symphonies). This 7th is well balanced and well recorded enough that it doesn’t need Loki EQ with the SR1a and is fine with the HD800S with thicker sounding but not more accurate textures. This is a nicely balanced sound; highs are not quite as open as more recent recordings but bass is fully satisfying. The perspective puts a little distance between the listener and orchestra which I much prefer to a podium perspective. The mystery and darkness of this movement is spot on as far as I’m concerned. The middle three movements are done nicely and the finale is just the right amount of exuberance and joy without going over the top. The musicians really deliver the goods; this is a compelling performance start to finish. This is from his first go at a complete Mahler Symphony’s set and this is a uniformly good set of performances and recordings. His later sets are a bit more self-indulgent pulling tempos to the breaking point sometimes and losing the forward momentum of the music.
Kubelik: B.Y.R S. 1970 ADD DG : Typical 70’s DG sound: light on the bass and a little bright, threadbare really. Cool versus warm. It appears from the booklet notes that this recording (from a set of the complete symphonies by Kubelik) was not remastered but just transferred from analog to digital. In what year it was transferred –I have no idea. More satisfying for me on the HD800S even over EQ on the SR1a. The overall performance is quickly paced (as are all of his in this 10 symphony set). There were places where I would have liked a little less speed and others where I would have liked a bit more, most notably in the first movement. What this recording and performance does have is a spectacular reveal of all horns and brass lines that bring out fine details in their parts that is illuminating. But as sound this is definitely not a favorite of mine.
Tennstedt: London S.O. (Live) 1980 ADD EMI: A live recording. Good performance overall, Tennstedt always has a way of bringing out and clarifying horn and brass lines like no other conductor. (I only saw him live once, did a Bruckner 8th in Philly, wow!). Frequency extension at both ends is okay but the soundstage is flat front to back. A bit over bearing with its close-up perspective. And overall not a transparent sound with very little hall ambience and EMI was known for making some excellent sounding recordings, maybe it was the “live” aspect. Even with EQ not a very nice sounding recording on the SR1a, and only slightly better on the HD800S. I treat this as of value for the interpretation only.
Abbado: Chicago S.O. 1984 DDD DG: Still at the top of the pile for performance and sound and is unusually well recorded for an 80’s DG release. Tight ensemble on the part of the Chicago S.O. with fearless playing by the horns and brass make this a thrilling account. The first movement’s central “Moonlight” episode is about the best rendition I’ve heard yet. An exciting finale too! Great dynamic contrasts and inner detailing. Orchestral balances are well judged throughout. The SR1a does need a push at 20HZ on Loki to get the bass to my liking, and it was fine as is on the HD800S if not as transparent. I’d rate this a hair better than the Bernstein but would still want both recordings in my library. Note, this is the original CD release of 1984. A subsequent remaster was done in DG’s “3D” reissue series which I have not heard.
Bernstein: New York Philharmonic 1985 DDD DG : 20 years later he records the 7th again in full digital with the same orchestra but a different label. Overall timing is 3 minutes longer than the 65’. And it’s a “live” recording of a performance. One thing I seem to notice about live recordings is if the hall of the performance is the same one they regularly use for making recordings, it seems to have an effect on the halls ambience, drying out the reverb. Could 2 to 3 thousand people in the seats be acting as sound absorbers? In any event this is another good M7 from my perspective. The first movement still lacks some of the mystery in the central section that Abbado’s has but otherwise it is excellent. His handling of the 3 inner movements is also exceptional bringing out details that present some familiar flavored Mahler-ism’s from previous symphonies and some that fore shadow the 9th and 10th. He pushes the opening bars of the final movement a little hard but quickly settles down and the ride to the finish is fully satisfying. I still think the orchestral instrument group’s balances in the Abbado are a little better but this second go by Bernie is a little more transparent. Perhaps characteristics of the respective recording locales.
Rattle: Bournemouth S.O. (Live) 1991 DDD EMI: Overall tone is dark and plays well with the the 1st movement. The perspective is slightly backed off, which I like, and not so much in my face. Transparency could be better. Nicely paced first movement with balances catching a lot of inner detailing. It’s easy to hear all instruments individually and together. Moderate hall ambience (another live recording), deep bass is a bit loose and highs a bit restrained in this recording. I like a little more angst and snarl in my horns and brass at the end of this movement. Curiously, the final movement sounds like it was recorded at a lower level and I found myself advancing the volume to fully flesh out the sound. The drums sound a little subdued, I’d like more impact. Overall recommendable.
Boulez: Cleveland O. 1994 DDD DG: Great performance and recording, very transparent with good ambience, firm bass, and crystal clear sound. Unusual for Boulez he takes his time with the first movement and to good effect. Nice “Moonlight” episode mid-movement, I’d like a bit more speed for the closing bars of the 1st movement. The 5th movement comes off well. Something about the way he brings out the structure of Mahler’s symphonies is very appealing to me; he never exaggerates anything for effect. The Cleveland brass and horns are outstanding throughout the symphony and he closes out the final movement nicely. I’d recommend this along with the Abbado as top picks so far.
Chailly: Concertgebouw 1998 DDD Decca: This is a frustrating one. Perhaps the best recorded of the group, and even the best as far as any recording of any music in concerned. The performance is dull, tempos stretched to the point of lethargy and losing the intended effect (from my point of view). The overall result of listening to this was extremely disappointing to me. Of all the recordings I have of this work, this is by far the longest in timing in every movement. The Concertgebouw records in their normal performance hall, a rich, warm, slightly dark sound with maybe just the right amount of ambience, especially for Mahler. The perspective is just slightly backed off making for a very realistic sound picture. The Decca engineers captured this with fantastic transparency and clarity of the individual instruments. You’ll hear every note without straining. Chailly’s take is too deliberately paced; it drains the music of involvement for me. At almost 25 minutes the 1st movement is the longest of all the recordings I have of this work. Even the middle 3 movements drag at times. He makes Bernstein sound like a speed merchant. Chailly lingers too long over every note. Things are only marginally better in the finale taking away some of the magic and humor. Even more frustrating as, per the case notes; “The last movement of the Mahler uses the recently restored “Mengelberg timpani”, a special drum which was built for Mengelberg performances of this piece to play the climatic low D`roll in the full score”. You can’t miss it when it makes its entry. Surprisingly there is an accompanying work on the disc; Aphons Diepenbrock’s “Im grossen Schweigen” which is very well done. Sheesh! Some conductors believe Mahler can only be appreciated on an expanded scale.
Levi: Atlanta S.O. 1998 DDD Telarc: Another slow performance like Chailly and an OK but not great recording that was made with DSD. Transparency and clarity are not on the same level as the Chailly (or several other of the recordings in this survey). With regards to the first movement he tries to linger where he can and pick up the pace where he should, but just not enough. Both this and the Chailly miss the “whip-snap” aspects of the score making it a dull affair. Instrumental textures are not as cleanly rendered as with some of the other recordings. The inner movements don’t fare much better either. The finale lacks the humor and impact I expect. With any Mahler 7 recording the closing bars with a combination of orchestral bells (church-like) and cowbells is a test of the merits of the recording.
Gielen: SWR S.O. 2003 DDD Hanssler Classic: An outstanding performance and recording. The opening bars string “shivers” of the first movement are the best I’ve ever heard. Gielen has those strings pumping and chuffing like a steam locomotive and the recording captures it perfectly. Pacing of the 1st movement is about perfect at 21:49. Very good “Moonlight” episode. The sound scape is slightly backed off but with absolutely no loss of detail and the right amount of hall ambience captured. Nice middle movements and an exciting finale. The quality sound holds up throughout the entire symphony. Highly recommended and a contender.
Michael Tilson-Thomas: S.F.S.O. Live 2005 DDD SFO Media: Another fine performance from start to finish recorded in Davies Symphony Hall. A more immediate “on the podium sound presentation than the Gielen, maybe not as transparent maybe but hall ambience is good. Instrumental lines are clarified to a great degree. The “Moonlight” episode is good but Abbado still pulls off an almost “floating in space” sensation. The inner movements are fine and the finale finishes up very effectively. Also note; MTT prefers the European or pre-1900 method of arranging the orchestra with 1st and 2nd violins divided left and right, cellos alongside the 1st violins, basses behind the cellos, and violas center and right behind the 2nd violins. Another highly recommended release.
(These next 2 recordings are very similar as interpretations and timings, both of good SQ but they vary a lot with regard to soundstage, listener’s perspective, and the individual ambient qualities of the different halls the recordings were made in and the overall tone they give to the respective recordings.)
Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich 2008 DDD RCA: A straight forward reading, good hall ambience, nice 3D sound stage, gives almost a “from the balcony” perspective. It’s difficult to accomplish when recording because, (I’m thinking) of the reverb when the mics move farther away from the stage. No faulting the SQ either, tympani are picked up strongly by the mic’ing, and the snare drum used at the closing of the 5th movement has never been brought out as clearly from the mass of sound of the overall orchestra. The final movement never drags, and it is not over-played, again just straight forward and just right. As a point of comparison, if the acoustic captured in the Concertgeboew is rich, warm, dark the Tonehalle is just the opposite but not to the point of being lean and bright.
Fischer, Budapest Festival Orchestra, 2015, DDD, Channel Classics: One of the fastest overall performances (including the two by Boulez and Kubelik), yet not by much and it never sounds rushed. Good SQ, good transparency. The acoustic is similar to the Tonhalle but more presence with tighter impact in the bass region. Maybe a little smoother in the highs or is it just less detailed? Satisfying performance and recording with a bit dryer acoustic than the Zinman.
Vanska, Minnesota Orchestra, 2018, DDD, BIS: This is an interesting performance in very good SQ. This is a very transparent recording with a more “up front” sound. The overall tone is not too rich or lean. Makes an interesting contrast with the previous two recordings I listened to. Vanska has a way of accenting certain phrases that I find really bring out some uniqueness in the score; some barely perceptible micro-pauses (for lack of a better word), sharper attacks at some points in the score, tempos that make sense and enhance the flow of the music, a slight alteration of the dynamics, the volume changes. I find this performance more interesting than the Fischer or Zinman to my way of hearing it. He doesn’t exaggerate like Chailly, or go at it straight forward like Fischer and Zinman. The SQ is excellent and found myself catching little details not so much of instrumentation per se’ but of the impression this symphony leaves me with.
My top 3 picks would be: Bernstein 1965, Abbado 1984, and Vanska 2018.
Followed very closely by: Boulez 1994, Gielen 2003, and Michael Tilson-Thomas 2005.
With nods to: Bernstein 1985, Rattle 1991, Zinman 2008, and Fischer 2015.