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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Mahler Symphony No. 7, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, March 11, 2005 (HS)

Of all Mahler's symphonies, No. 7 remains the most problematic. Other than the eighth, which requires outsized forces and costs a fortune to present, it is the least performed of his major works. It certainly qualifies as his least loved. All the more reason to get a really rousing performance like this one onto a CD. The microphones were on for it, and like the other installments of the San Francisco Symphony's current self-packaged Mahler symphony cycle (after this, only the fifth and eighth remain to be recorded), it will be pieced together from the four live subscription concerts this past week (plus a cleanup session).

This technique has generally captured recordings with the immediacy of live performance and the clarity of repeated takes. If the other three performances of the seventh were as unbuttoned and wild as this one, the finished CD ought to be quite a thing to hear.

Heck, I would be thrilled if the one performance I heard made it to the final transfer unchanged. Not because it was note perfect, although it was darned close, but because it delivered sheer raw, brazen, muscular power. Tilson Thomas approached the rangy, messy score with no apologies, no attempt to pretty up Mahler's inconsistencies and abrupt transitions, no overlay of interpretive gloss. He just plowed through the music as Mahler wrote it, warts and all, and damned if it wasn't absolutely thrilling stuff.

The Seventh follows one of Mahler's symmetrical forms, with two large, outspoken outer movements around three smaller, somewhat more intimate, shorter pieces in the middle. At the center is a weird, spectral scherzo, flanked by two fuller-bodied nocturnes.

The opening movement continually shifts tempos, edges into some of Mahler's most dissonant harmonies, erupts into brass fanfares and tosses jagged themes around the orchestra from section to section, soloist to soloist. It's a sprawling, ungainly thing. It is nature music but hardly the organically developed material we have come to know in the first six symphonies. This conductor encouraged this wild nocturnal animal to thrash about, and amazingly, and totally unexpectedly, it became an exhilarating thrill ride. Even if you knew the score well, you had the feeling you weren't quite certain what might be coming around the next tree.

The middle movements are relatively straightforward, at least in comparison to the first, but they are not lyrical night pieces. There are things going bump in this superficially restful night. The second movement opens with a sort of quiet, controlled chaos that skids into a march, which keeps wavering between major and minor. The orchestra reflected this contrast with quicksilver changes from dark to light.

They played the spooky scherzo as if were a ghostly apparition of a waltz. After the loudness of the opening movements, this was truly haunting, especially when it seems to evaporate into thin air at the end.


The fourth movement, the other one that's labeled expressly as night music, has a more romantic feeling, even introducing a mandolin and a guitar along with the harp to accompany a violin serenade. Somehow these amorous emotions never seem completely genuine, but concertmaster Alexander Barantschik and the plucked instruments found enough charm to make it feel almost hopeful.

The finale bursts onto the scene with a fanfare for horns and bassoons and flourishes for timpani, brilliantly executed by David Herbert. Then come a series of fanfares for the full brass, which punctuate one style of exuberant music after another. There's a country dance, and a chorale, and several marches. After the darkness of the first four movements, this is blazing daylight, aptly crowned by marvelous playing from the entire brass section. It even ends up in C major, an allusion to the triumphant finales of Beethoven's Fifth, Wagner's Die Meistersinger, and countless "victory" symphonies that became staples of the Romantic era. This performance made pains to underline and accentuate that Mahler is, if anything, parodying this kind of music, with all the abrupt harmonic shifts, rhythmic missteps and formal backpedaling that Mahler just couldn't resist throwing at us.

Tilson Thomas and the orchestra roared through the final pages with irresistible momentum. It may not have been triumph the way Beethoven or Wagner imagined it, but it was pure, breathtaking Mahler. Let's hope the engineers got it all.

Harvey Steiman

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