David Zinman and his Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich have been quietly plugging away at their Mahler cycle on RCA over the past couple of years, receiving respectful, if not always gushing notices in the music press. This latest release has all the virtues of earlier instalments in the series – excellent attention to detail, an athletic orchestral sound, a clear-sighted reluctance to overindulge – but these qualities often seem to be better suited to the more forward-looking ambivalence of the problematic Seventh Symphony.
Technically, this recording is a superb achievement. Not only is RCA's sound remarkably detailed, without sounding artificially pernickety, but Mahler's scoring comes across as a marvel of economy, with every stroke of his pen conveyed with care and clarity by the Tonhalle Orchestra. Zinman's great achievement is that the musical arguments are still very much to the fore: the score's several moments of aching passion – such as the soaring violin melody that takes in the first movement's fragmentary 'development' section – are all the more touching for the conductor's controlled approach; the Scherzo, on the other hand, has rarely sounded so schattenhaft, with every glissando and stabbing staccato executed with such care.
Zinman helps to underline the feeling of nervous tension created by much of Mahler's orchestration and which helped make it a favourite of Webern's, as well as finally converting Schoenberg to the Mahlerian cause. Details such as the jabbing bursts of string tremolandi that interject in the first minutes of the opening movement are often lost, but come across clearly here. One downside, perhaps, is that Zinman does hold back with certain moments of grotesequerie and in the final minutes of the movement I felt he could have loosened his tight grip and let the Dionysian take hold.
The central movements are particularly fine, however, with the neurosis and wit of the two Nachtmusik movements especially well captured. Zinman is forceful towards the end of the first and the way he controls his string players – the violins in particular – allowing them to fill out and suddenly warm their tone at moments of heightened emotion is disarmingly effective. The macabre world of the Scherzo is captured with special skill, and among all the details the effect of the antiphonal violins is exploited with relish. Again, the shadowy atmosphere is particularly well contrasted with tenderly executed lyricism, such as the hushed horn solo at 7'45.
The symphony's finale has always been its most problematic movement and remains so here. Zinman's strategy is to maintain a certain objectivity which succeeds in saving it from bombast, but can sound detached and uninvolved. The playing is still magnificent, however, and Zinman does finally grab the movement by the scruff of the neck in the final minutes.
A less than totally convincing account of the finale is as much Mahler's fault as Zinman's and this remains a reading of the highest quality, although some might occasionally find the conductor's grip on his players a little too tight and controlling. This is one of the finest releases in Zinman's cycle so far, though, and a recording of this problematic symphony that all Mahlerians will want to hear.
By Hugo Shirley