WORKS: Symphony No. 7
PERFORMER: Berlin PO/Claudio Abbado
CATALOGUE NO: 471 623-2
Even in a Mahler symphony, there are limits of tonal impact, dynamic detail and articulation beyond which no one can hope to go, and in Abbado’s latest live recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic, they seem to have been triumphantly reached. Even as he batters our hearts so unmercifully, Abbado’s phenomenal brain is adjusting details of balance and subtly altering the forward movement in each bar to expressive ends. The basic tempi will not please everyone, and Abbado has become if anything even more urgent, not more reflective, since his first Mahler cycle (although there are few of the interpretative eccentricities that make Rattle’s EMI Seventh, for instance, such a matter of personal taste). Most listeners will do a double-take as the consoling lullaby at the start of the Ninth takes its first plunge into a very volatile darkness. Yet the argument against a more familiar, monumental grandeur soon becomes persuasive; Abbado is asking us to become that desperate mortal clinging on to the wreckage rather than just to admire a titanic battle against cosmic forces, and he uses the tense support of a presumably harrowed audience to go further into the labyrinth than any conductor – except a more expansive Bernstein – has ever dared.
The miracle is that the listener at home, shocked and stunned, does the same. The close, often artificial recording hectors and sometimes baulks at the biggest tidal waves of the Ninth, but the interpretation’s clarity of line and fixity of purpose win us over. We’re equally harrowed when the more frenetic strain of the scherzo goes over the wall in its last death-dance, or for that matter in the outer movements of the Seventh when the tragedy queen of night’s chariot flies into the nocturnal air and the carnival revellers of the finale storm the barricades of civic dignity. Into these unpredictable anarchies glide mysteries and beauties over which Abbado and the Berliners throw a magic veil at a second’s notice. My notes were rife with exclamations at the solos achieved in every twilight zone and ghost world; but let’s leave it at the supernatural incandescence of the dying strings at the end of the Ninth – DG was right to wait on the applause; the 40-second silence in between says it all. David Nice