The Treasure Hunt: MAHLER SEVENTH SYMPHONY
©1983 Mark B. Anstendig
That this symphony is considered the most enigmatic of Mahler's symphonies is no wonder, considering that all recordings except one are gross misinterpretations. That one recording, by Otto Klemperer, is so different from the way the reviewers and the public are accustomed to hearing this symphony, that it was considered a bad performance, never became popular, and was dropped from the catalogue. Even the program notes accompanying the album do not reflect Klemperer's interpretation.
The key to this symphony is that it was written about the same time as Richard Strauss' "Domestic" Symphony. Mahler and Strauss were good friends and shared a lively exchange of esoteric ideas. The growing awareness of psychiatry, which had a certain "chic" at that time, led to the understanding that creative art reflected the creative-artist's own personal experience. So why not consciously put the events of one's life, even everyday life, into one's music?
The symphony describes Mahler's summer vacation, beginning with the boredom with his city routine, the preparations for the vacation and their departure from Vienna for the Swiss Alps (first movement). The upward flowing, lyrical theme is probably Mahler's wife, an oasis amid the drabness, adding a touch of love to the scene. Klemperer allows this melody to unfold in a marvelously unhurried, expansive manner that transfigures the listener with its extraordinary, expressive warmth.
The supposedly enigmatic three middle movements have to do with the family, their nightmares, their daydreams, the children's bumbling movements and rhythms, and probably with many personal experiences Mahler shared with them. The second movement sets the rustic scene in the mountains. It contrasts the different ennui of the mountain life with the oppressive boredom of the first movement. In the mountains, everything happens in a leisurely, relaxed manner. The third movement is the fleeting nightmares and phantasmagoria that can flow through one's mind when one lets it wander in solitary circumstances as well as some of the nighttime sounds drifting from the village taverns. The fourth movement depicts a languid, romantic evening with Mahler and his wife ambling aimlessly, flowing in and out of the various moods that two such temperamentally sensitive people can get into.
Expressively, the last movement is Mahler's counterpart to the "Merry Fugue" last movement of Strauss' symphony. It is the family having fun, which of course had to do with music in those times of no radio, records, or TV.
Much of the subject matter of the symphony has to do with Mahler's children, either playing with them or seeing through their eyes. A key to entering into the experience of the music is remembering how quickly and easily children flow from one emotion to another, often without apparent reason, and how quickly they can become bored and lose interest in whatever wonderful thing they might have been doing a few moments before.
These explanations throw a new light on how the music should be played. It must be exquisitely playful, delicate, loving, and high-level fun (Mahler and his family were highly refined). But above all, it must be human. The last movement is not a tour de force of how loud, fast, and nastily an orchestra can play, which is the way it is usually interpreted. Mahler does satirize many well-known pieces of music, but it is all in fun, delectable, and deliciously witty; it is the romping family going through its various moods and attitudes, signified by quotes of music with those attitudes. The final climaxes have to retain a delicate expressive character even though played loudly and should not have the slightest trace of harshness or stridency. Klemperer's recording accomplishes this perfectly. The last movement is sweet, loving, high "camp" and the manner in which his orchestra calmly differentiates the sounds at the end, even while playing loudly, is superb.
The problem with all Klemperer recordings, and a reason why they are not more popular, is that the expressive content is so finely differentiated that one absolutely cannot hear the delicacy of it unless the recordings are equalized and played back on fine equipment. Klemperer's orchestra is exquisitely balanced and makes all the "right" sounds. But without equalization the sounds are falsified and the expressive content is lost. Because expressive playing demands more time, Klemperer's tempos are often slow. But, when listened to on inadequate equipment, without equalization, the expressive content is lost and what remains is music-making that sounds pompously slow and tedious. This is tragic, because the experiences to be had are real treasures to which the costliest diamond cannot begin to compare. The same holds true for all of the recordings described in this series, although Klemperer's are particularly fine.
The equalization is typical: start by reducing the high frequency "edge" between 2000 Hz and 4000 Hz, then reduce the thickness in the sound by a cut between 640 to 1000 Hz. Clarify the bass by a cut ca 125 Hz to 160 Hz. Touchup might include a cut in the very high frequencies and some careful cuts just below the frequency ranges mentioned above.
Mahler Symphony number 7
Otto Klemperer and the New Philharmonic Orchestra Angel SB 3740
The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit research and educational institute that studies the vibrational influences in our environment, particularly those of sight and sound, and how they affect sensory perception. Its papers on sound reproduction, problems of focusing in photography, psychology of hearing and seeing, and erratic vibrational influences that affect our lives are widely distributed throughout the world. All are available free of charge.