Seen and Heard International
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
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
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.
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