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Mahler, Seventh Symphony: Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (Conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall 21.11.2005 (JPr)

 

 

‘A musicologist is someone who can read music but cannot hear it!’ was announced at some study day or other I was at once and I am convinced by this (with respect to all concerned) as I hear (I certainly could not read!) Mahler’s Seventh Symphony.

The point about this Symphony is that you really do not immediately come out of the concert hall ‘humming the tunes’ to any great extent. If you do it is possibly because those Star Trek fans amongst you must surely recognize - played by the brass in the Langsam (Adagio) - a Leitmotif heard in all these SciFi shows and films. Mainly however most Wagnerians will recognise the Die Meistersinger Overture throughout the Rondo: Finale.

I come from a Wagner background and it was a performance of the Seventh Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall in January this year that convinced me that this is indeed Mahler’s ‘Wagner’ symphony. In hindsight the analytical approach of conductors like Boulez, for instance, probably does this music a disservice and makes it disjointedly episodic. However if a search for irony (in a work where possibly no irony exists) is abandoned then the symphony truly becomes, as in Mahler’s own words, ‘predominantly cheerful in character’. In fact the Seventh portrayed as an uncomplicated, straightforward and optimistic masterpiece by the Orchestre National de Lyon under Alan Gilbert in that concert brought it fairly high in my favourite Mahler symphonies list.

There are of course ‘darker’ passages, and even Mahler indicated that the Scherzo should be ‘shadowy’ but the only potential horrors here are of a child’s ‘things that go bump in the night’ type. As the Night Watchman sings at the end of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger Act III ‘Beware of ghosts and spooks so that no evil spirit ensnares your soul’ … I could not myself give a better summing up of this third movement.

Mahler explained in a letter to his wife Alma about a journey across the lake to their home: ‘I got into the boat to be rowed across. At the first stroke of the oars the theme (or rather the rhythm and character) of the introduction to the first movement came into my head’. Turning now to Wagner, after his own boat voyage to Spezia in Italy, sea-sickness and a long walk he recalled in My Life: ‘I fell into a kind of somnolent state, in which I suddenly felt as though I were sinking in swiftly flowing water. The rushing sound formed itself in my brain into a musical sound’ - so from this the opening of Das Rheingold is supposed to have evolved. Not conclusive but a start of our journey (in a Da Vinci Code sort of way) into what might have influenced Mahler in his Seventh Symphony.

At this time it is believed Gustav considered himself to be like Hans Sachs too old for his much younger Alma/Eva so it should not come as a surprise that all the other references might be from Die Meistersinger. So the ‘amorous suitor’ and the mandolin/guitar music of the second ‘Night music’ is probably a reference to Beckmesser with his lute from Act II of that opera. (The town clerk Beckmesser is a caricature of Eduard Hanslick an antagonist of Wagner but a supporter of Mahler.) In that Act Beckmesser ‘serenades’ Eva at night with a lute … and of course the mandolin is a member of the same family of stringed instruments. Clearly Gustav somehow doubted Alma’s fidelity to their marriage.

Even Wendy Thompson in her programme notes for the Philharmonia concert acknowledges the brass fanfares of the Rondo-Finale ‘refers explicitly to Act III of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger (and that) Mahler included the Meistersinger Prelude in all the performances of the Seventh Symphony he conducted’. It has been suggested that when Mahler considered the first of these ‘Night musics’ part of his inspiration was an image of Rembrandt’s painting The Night Watch. This can take us back full circle to Wagner’s own Night Watchman.

When will he get round to discussing the performance I read in your thoughts? Fortunately Salonen, the Philharmonia and Mahler’s Seventh Symphony have already been reviewed earlier this month on this website when they performed at The Sage, Gateshead and a lot of that review I concur with. That was the third night of a three-week European tour with Esa-Pekka Salonen – every night it seems somewhere different (actually 17 concerts in 20 days). Two days before it was Vienna, the night before Milan and this was their final date. How can an orchestra give its best under this hectic travel schedule?

The orchestra sounded commendably fresh and eager (probably for a rest!). The performance moved along fairly briskly with a certain Finnish sang-froid replacing the ‘can belto’ extrovert sound and generalised operatic emotion I so admired in that performance earlier in the year.

More problematic was the venue – the Queen Elizabeth Hall – the huge orchestral forces overspilling an undoubtedly extended platform. Even from a seat that was halfway back I was immersed in the sound as though wearing old-fashioned headphones. It was all so ‘in your face’ as the phrase goes. Nobody could sleep even if they wanted to because the sound was so immediate and loud. This lack of a resonating space affected my appreciation of this performance as things possibly were too clear and you could hear almost every individual contribution, most notably in harps, mandolin, guitar and, of course, cowbells. Cowbells that the eminent Donald Mitchell told me recently probably represent the desire for paradise on earth and also in the life beyond and that are best heard, like those other contributions, as part of the overall orchestral colour or ‘tumult’ and not heard standing out from the crowded platform quite so prominently. Esa-Pekka Salonen (despite that certain detachment to the cheerfulness that Mahler suggested was inherent in the work) drove everything on to its definitely joyous Meistersinger-inspired conclusion and was well-received by the capacity audience.

I note that in the performance in Gateshead the Philharmonia played some Bartók which was left out at the QEH. They should have kept this in and then it would have made the corporate guests I was seated next to happy. They spent a long time double-checking the programme to find when the interval would be, because as one of them said: ‘There is always an interval because they have to sell drinks’.

 

 

© Jim Pritchard

 

 

 

 

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