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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Mahler: Symphony No. 7, New York Philharmonic, Riccardo Chailly, Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, February 12, 2005 (BH)


This high-powered evening sent my brain into a tailspin, since my enjoyment – and I did enjoy it – was countered by the reaction of another knowledgeable friend who deemed it “very disappointing,” and the discussion lingered well afterward. It was the most telling reminder of the season of how expectations, myths and sets of ears combine to decipher what is happening onstage – right now, and in the moment.


Over the past decade or so, Riccardo Chailly has completed an impressively consistent Mahler symphonies cycle with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, with some of the recordings at the top of many lists (such as the Fifth from a few years back, and this year’s Third and Ninth). I find most of them magnificently played and equally well recorded, whatever one thinks of Chailly’s often-slow tempi and other interpretive choices. Chailly’s Mahler no doubt sounds less neurotic – he doesn’t dwell on the craziness, angularity and violence – but I suspect Chailly has other priorities, one of which might be clarifying Mahler’s dense ideas to present to an overstimulated 21st-century public. Slowing the symphonies down focuses more attention on the incredible rainforest of ideas in each one, allowing all the myriad flora, strange beetles and unclassifiable tiny life forms to emerge as individual elements. It’s certainly not the only way to do Mahler, but I’ve grown to like it as another alternative.


All of this said, Chailly’s Seventh with the New York Philharmonic was quite overwhelming, if not always with the kind of meticulous playing that one has heard from this group in the new Maazel era. This swaggeringly heroic and often peculiar work had not been done since 1990, a bit of a shame given the increasing comfort with the composer’s vocabulary. The structure of the Seventh still daunts many listeners, but in the right hands offers the same pleasures as all the others, with vast emotional extremes, often unusual colors painted by every player, and virtuosity that shows orchestral machinery with pistons pumping at full bore.


One of this conductor’s strengths is an acute ability to locate the drama (not that it’s terribly difficult to do so in this work) and prepare those moments far in advance, ready to be launched at maximum impact. For most listeners this is undeniably exciting. Again, the slower pace allows this to happen in a way that I’d bet for most listeners, hits them right between the eyes. In practice, for example, the final pages of the first movement had a breathless impact, a weighty crush that was most seductive, if you’ll pardon the potential oxymoron. Chailly’s love of the theatrical seems almost innate. Another friend joked, “Well, what do you expect – he’s Italian!” I’m not sure that’s the whole story, but considering his love of operas like La Boheme and Pagliacci, it’s worth mulling over.


Liberal use of ritards, almost like pulling back a slingshot, had huge climaxes landing everywhere. Some excellent solos arrived and departed all too quickly, notably from concertmaster Glen Dicterow and principal violist Cynthia Phelps, and I loved being able to hear the distinctive guitar and mandolin parts, sometimes obscured, so clearly thrust forward in the texture. And I can’t even single out any of the Philharmonic’s brass players, who were loud, but it was a good loud, with some flashily done trumpet and horn work, and Mahler doesn’t stint on tuba moments, either. Well done, gentlemen.


It was Chailly’s stage demeanor that caused the disagreement. I like to watch the stage activity almost as much as I like to feel the results pouring out of it, but in this case Chailly’s podium histrionics were more than mildly distracting – and I have a pretty broad tolerance for conductors’ range of motion, from Bernstein to Boulez, and everyone in between. At points in the final Rondo-Finale, he dropped into an exaggerated crouch, slowly rising up again to mirror a crescendo in the score, and then would burst excitedly with hand movements also mirroring much of what was happening. But sometimes it felt just like that – like a mirror, rather than a guide. His movements seemed to be reflecting what the orchestra had already produced, just a split-second earlier. And some of the playing, tremendous as it was, seemed to occur in spite of his gestures, not as a result of them.


But few seemed to share any of this hesitation. The packed audience – and it was sold out – left no doubt whatsoever about its feelings, as a rabidly vocal shower broke out after the final decimating chord. In fact, the audience reaction was so loud that I wondered later about the conventional wisdom that characterizes this work as “The Most Difficult of Mahler’s Symphonies To Like.” Perhaps Chailly is making new converts, which is not a bad thing at all.


Bruce Hodges



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