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Austrian conductor Michael Gielen (born 1927) had a reputation for gruffness. He was not easy for music managers to handle or for journalists to interview – as I know from experience. This, and his dedication to modern music, gave him a less glittering career than his gifts deserved, for his music-making was always precise, intelligent and gripping – words that provide perfect epithets for this 1994 performance with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded live by Berlin Radio and now making a triumphant CD debut.
Mahler’s Seventh sets so many traps for unsuspecting conductors that it sometimes seems incoherent. In Gielen’s hands it is revealed in all its headlong grandeur and seductive power, thanks to his knack of unleashing the music’s colourful excesses while maintaining a grasp of its shape and structure – a balance rarely achieved, especially in the Rondo Finale.
The Berliners’ muscular timbre sets the seal on a top-of-the-range Mahler recording – in similarly atmospheric sound to Mariss Jansons’ 2011 performance of the “Symphony of a Thousand” with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and assembled choirs. Jansons, who this month brings Mahler’s Second Symphony to the BBC Proms and Edinburgh Festival, is a more “classical” Mahlerian than Gielen – a definite plus in this unwieldy cantata. With excellent soloists led by Christine Brewer, Stephanie Blythe, Camilla Nylund, Robert Dean Smith and Tommi Hakkala, his performance conveys a thrilling sense of occasion, especially in the superbly shot DVD version, which comes as part of the same package as the CD.
Symphony No 7
Symphony No 8