The Seventh remains the least well-known among Mahler's symphonies. Precisely because its material is so enormously wide-ranging, its colors so thrillingly kaleidoscopic, this work is also perhaps the one that relies the most on a knowing, strong-willed interpretive presence. This Michael Tilson Thomas provides in spades, in one of his finest performances on disc. The Seventh has been given the picturesque--if ultimately inaccurate--epithet "Song of the Night" because of its preoccupation with a nocturnal sound world, by turns creepily unsettling and sweetly charming in the three middle movements.
But MTT clearly understands what's at stake here in the larger architecture of the piece, particularly in the problematic, ambiguous meanderings of its two gigantic outer movements. He keeps the flow of invention keenly on course from the marvelous cantorial tenor horn opening against dark, plodding chords, so that the expanse of Mahler's imagination has freedom to roam, but with purpose. The juxtapositions of richly characterized solos with ensemble work of brilliant choreography from the London Symphony seem constantly to open up new sonic vistas, perhaps most tellingly in the Elysian chimera announced by sweeping harp glissandi at the development's climax in the first movement. MTT's sense of scale is right on target for the strange rhythms of the spectral scherzo and for the enchanting intimacy (aided by mandolin and guitar) of the serenading second "Nachtmusik." In an Amazon.com interview, MTT compares the finale to "having psychotic breaks while conducting a performance of Meistersinger." While several notches below the seismic force that propels Bernstein's exuberant second recording, this account conveys its emotional richness and insight in thrilling recorded sound. The booklet notes are by one of the best in the business, Michael Steinberg. --Thomas May