Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony has rarely sounded so much like Mahler's Seventh as it does in this 2000 recording with Günther Herbig directing the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken. Not that Shostakovich's Seventh actually sounds much like Mahler's Seventh -- the anxious splendor of Mahler's fin de siècle Austria is nothing like the desperate terror of Shostakovich's Great Patriotic War Russia -- but there is something in Herbig's anguished tone and grandiloquent gestures that recalls Mahler's work, something that sounds less like bone-deep fear than a bad case of hysteria.
This may be interpretively arguable. Shostakovich's angst in the face of remorseless dread is palpable in the Seventh's first three movements -- but Herbig's angst feels less in the blood and more in the nerves, less life and death and more existential dread. And while the Seventh has the most overtly triumphant finale of any Shostakovich symphony, the triumph at the end of Herbig's Seventh rings hollow, as if the deliberately banal tone of the Tempo ordinario Rondo Finale of Mahler's Seventh had taken over the spirit of Shostakovich's Seventh, infecting its hard-won victory with insidious doubts and subversive ironies. This may be interpretively arguable -- but it upends nearly every other recorded interpretation of the Seventh from Mravinsky's to Gergiev's.
How convincing it is depends on the listener. Technically, the performance is impeccable. Herbig is totally on top of the gargantuan work -- his control of its mass and momentum is complete -- and the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony is totally up to the strenuous demands of the immensely long, enormously loud score. But finally, Herbig's interpretive stance is more eccentric than central and, ultimately, perhaps less persuasive than dubious. For listeners who already know a half-ozen or more Sevenths -- Mravinsky's, Kondrashin's, Rozhdestvensky's, Ashkenazy's, Temirkanov's, and Gergiev's -- Herbig's will be an occasionally interesting alternative. Berlin Classics' digital sound is huge, vivid, and colorful.