Classical Music: Double Play

Our critics give their verdicts on the week's big release; Mahler: Symphonies Nos 6 & 7 London Philharmonic / Klaus Tennstedt Live recordings from the Royal Festival Hall (EMI 5 55294 2)
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Life imitating art imitating life? It makes for good copy, of course: Klaus Tennstedt, engaged in his own life-or-death struggle with a debilitating illness, fights the good fight for Mahler. But given his uncanny temperamental affinity with this composer, and with the Sixth Symphony in particular, and given that, only having looked into the abyss, can you really know how it feels, it's probably reasonable to suggest that Klaus Tennstedt never came closer to living, really living, the symphony than he did here. Which doesn't necessarily make for a greater musical experience, just a more personal one. And, in Mahler, that's often the same thing.

Something happened at the Royal Festival Hall in November 1991. Take that visionary passage from the development of the first movement, an imagined existence far from the madding crowds, high above the hurly-burly, closer to heaven but remote - as Schoenberg once observed - from the warmth of humanity. Tennstedt conveys an extraordinary sense of its cold comfort, fragments of the aspiring "Alma" theme now drifting aimlessly, longing to be whole again. You could no more emulate Tennstedt in a passage like this than you could Leonard Bernstein. The rubatos (often breathtakingly extravagant) are inbred, any given phrase, paragraph, movement, will take as long as it takes. Like Bernstein, he'll always go the extra distance. The Scherzo's double-trio verges on a parody of the parody (what was it Cardus said: "a landler for polar bears"?), while everything about the voluminous Finale is writ large, larger, largest.

The sheer effort of will conveyed at the threshold of the final climax - an absolutely tremendous crescendo of wishful thinking - is of an intensity that few in my experience have equalled. Klaus Tennstedt fighting for his life. The London Philharmonic cease playing but rather take possession of the notes. I'm still hearing that ignominious string bass pizzicato, like a final lifeline snapping on entry to the broken coda.

The Seventh, from two years later (you see, he did overcome, albeit temporarily), is rougher and readier. But I like its elemental, unhoned quality, I like the fact that Tennstedt maximises the work's eccentricities - though even he cannot salvage the outlandish Finale: a kind of Viennese "Come Dancing" for the uncoordinated. Rattle has the best solution: don't try to make sense of it (what is it but a collage, a sequence of transitions), just make for the silver lining and that banquet of a coda.

If this is your first time, so to speak, then Rattle (EMI) is still your best bet for the Seventh. Similarly Bernstein (DG) in the Sixth. But Tennstedt had more to say about this music than he had time to say it in.


An intriguing coupling. It would make a fascinating concert - for those with the necessary stamina. The Sixth Symphony remains the teeming, explosive but entirely self-sufficient musical argument it always was; but No 7 feels more than ever like the morning after the Walpurgisnacht. It doesn't merely echo the Sixth, it emerges from its shadow. Even though two years separate these concert performances, there's an irresistible sense of emotional sequence - until the Finale of No 7 at least. The "triumphal" return of the first movement theme at the end - bells and cowbells pealing dutifully - still sounds like an act of desperation to me. Perhaps it would have been better if Mahler hadn't tried to pretend that the symphony is an autonomous organic whole.

But I can't think of a better way to experience these two works together. You may disagree in principle with aspects of Tennstedt's readings - the long, languishing rubato that leads into No 6's impassioned "Alma" theme is effective once, but in the repeat it's more like deja entendu. But in the end the conductor's passionate conviction carries almost everything. And highly charged as it is, it isn't unrelenting: it's quite possible to go straight from the Adagio to the emotional roller-coaster Finale without feeling that a 10-minute break and a stiff brandy might have been a good idea.

As for No 7, the playing and expressive sweep in the first movement are impressive too, as is the gradual shift of emphasis from striving to fantastic and uneasy dreaming. By "live" standards the recordings are excellent, though the odd detail does get buried - a shame the mandolin sounds so reticent in No 7. Still, a strongly competitive pairing.