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Seen and Heard Concert Review
MAHLER Symphony No 7: Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig, Riccardo Chailly (Kappelmeister) Barbican, London, 10.3.2006 (AO)
Of all Mahler’s symphonies, the Seventh is the most controversial. There are many scattered clues as to its interpretation, some wildly contradictory. It is emotionally ambivalent : what you hear in it depends on what the performers put in, hence the variations in performance practice. This is not a symphony where “received wisdom” has any place for either performers or listeners. I’m not fond of Chailly’s previous recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, but I approached this concert with a completely open mind. After all, it has been twelve years since the recording was made.
What a transformation ! This time, Chailly’s approach was completely different, an unashamedly original reading which showed why Schoenberg hailed Mahler as a modernist, pushing the limits of tonality. Themes only seem to be repeated, for each time they take a different form and no two passages are exactly alike. One invention morphs into another, keys shift rapidly from major to minor, intervals change, all constantly forming new patterns of sound. The orchestra played with exuberance and there was a crackling sense of energy as they built up towards crescendos, then deftly changed direction and volume. In the Adagio the trumpets soar ever upwards, then, as if balancing on a precipice, pull back, while the orchestra switches to the march like theme. Chailly lets the short breaks of silence, particularly in the Scherzo, hang in the air like exclamation points, making even non-sound part of the colour palette.
Despite the careful structure of the symphony, the overall effect here was of powerful forward movement. The march, which underpins the whole symphony, carries all in its sway. There are echoes too, of Ländler, songs to be sung in walking rhythm while hiking, dances, minuets. These are all music to be moved to, and this performance moved energetically thanks to inspired and spirited playing. Then, in the Finale, the deceptive play of rondo repeats seems to contradict the forward flow, until, at the end, the trajectory surges forth again, triumphant.
The Leipzigers may not have a “Mahler tradition” but they are superlative musicians, noted for the legendary warmth and sonority of their playing. Chailly makes the most of the orchestra’s innate lyricism in this symphony, where the rich, magnificent sound contrasts with the rapid switches in direction, creating a powerful sense of darkness and light which further heightens the myriad colours. He also brings out their chamber-like virtuosity in the many vignettes from which Mahler builds the symphony, such as the harp and flute duet, the dialogues between horns, and the interplay between the double bass and tuba. Needless to say, conventional soloists, like the leader of the first violins, were flawless, playing with precision and passion. In a symphony of profusion like this, details count and it was a joy to hear instruments like the triangle and cowbells clear and distinct above the tumult.
Despite the exhilaration of the playing, and its strong
directional flow, Chailly did not lose the deeper vision
behind the music. This music is not narrative, but
the sense of Mahler as a human being pervades its interpretation.
At the beginning of the Scherzo, there is a hint of
Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, where the
saint preaches to the fish, who simply dart away again
when he’s finished. The Scherzo is framed by two Nachtmusiks,
filled with imagery of the night, evening breezes, even
eerie hints of “ghosts”. In this performance, the mandolin
was particularly expressive, evoking the image of a
serenade, but deliberately just slightly off centre,
as if night and sleep were distorting things. Indeed,
the predominant march theme is too inventive to be a
pompous, rigid military march - in Mahler’s mind,
it becomes something else altogether. It is as though
Mahler is expanding Romantic ideas and conventional
forms with his own sense of humanity and irreverence.
Hence the crucial role of the humble mandolin, the cowbells,
and the block of wood struck for its timbre, poised
against the huge wall of exuberant sound.