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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 65 Mahler, Symphony No 7: San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, 2.9.2007 (JPr)


When I ‘review’ my reviews of the BBC Proms I always seem to have something to whinge about, often it is the modest size of the audience in what is supposed to be a ‘sell-out’ season. No complaints about this in 2007, as empty seats have been few and far between and like ‘A’ level results (where there will soon be a 101% pass rate), so it must be for tickets sales based on figures released previously.

However my carping over previous years about the content of the printed Proms programmes remains just a valid today as ever. It is just not good enough to leave an audience, many hearing the rarely performed Mahler 7 for the first time, so ill-informed about it. Andrew Huth in his notes again uses the adjective often ascribed to this symphony when he writes ‘Many people have found the Seventh to be the most problematic of Mahler’s symphonies’. What is unforgivable from anyone with ears to hear is when he writes earlier ‘Passing references, perhaps not intentional (my italics), can be heard to music by Schubert, Schumann and Wagner, to Bizet’s Carmen and even Léhar’s The Merry Widow.’ One thing most musicologists I would have thought would agree on was that Mahler rarely did anything unintentionally!

The composer’s duties as conductor at the Vienna Court Opera meant that while he wrote the two middle Nachtmusik (‘Night-music’ or Serenade) movements first in the summer of 1904 he then left it for a year uncertain as to what to put around them. There followed the oft-quoted revelatory moment when he stepped into a boat to be rowed over an Alpine lake and got ‘the rhythm and the style of the introduction to the first movement’. So he bookended the two Serenades with an Adagio and a Rondo-Finale putting an eerie Scherzo in between them.

It is more the subject of lecture (or a book) but I repeat how in thrall Mahler was to Wagner, something the musical world is eager to suppress I believe. Mahler would know that in Mein Leben Wagner claims a precompositional ‘vision’ for the introduction to Das Rheingold while staying in La Spezia, Italy, where there were also boats and water. In the last years of his life there is also evidence that Mahler was very anxious about seeming to be the elderly Hans Sachs (from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger) to Alma’s youthful Eva (there is much that frivolously alludes to Alma in the Seventh). The use of the guitar and mandolin in the Serenades ironically mimics the unsuccessful wooing of Eva by Beckmesser with his lute playing. The Mahler expert, Professor Steven Bruns has written: ‘The interval of the perfect fourth has special significance throughout Wagner's opera, and the fourth is motivic in Mahler's Seventh as well. Finally, Mahler was surely referring to the sunny C Major of Wagner's Die Meistersinger in his strategic use of that tonality in the Seventh, especially during the closing measures.’ And with a few conceptual leaps, QED, we have Mahler’s unacknowledged ‘Wagner Symphony’ and then it is not ‘problematic’ at all! Don’t of course forget the music in the first movement that was appropriated for Star Trek … that is another story entirely but it all goes towards making this a fascinating symphony and the one that is possibly becoming my favourite!

So how was it at the Proms in the experienced hands of Michael Tilson Thomas and his San Francisco Symphony? Well his approach was the antithesis of Claudio Abbado’s recent Mahler 3 at the Proms. I wonder whether that performance would have come over much better in the live radio broadcast or audio streamed than it would have in the upper reaches of the Albert Hall where surely it would have faded to nothing, so introspective was Abbado’s approach at times, of course the playing was peerless and the final movement was majestic but it was Abbado’s Mahler for Abbado and not the audience if truth be told.

Michael Tilson Thomas went in the other direction and played unashamedly to the gallery. For a symphony with supposedly so many rough edges he showed that it can be approached with shining lyricism and if it is supposed to veer from darkness to light then the darkness that MTT allowed was never more than a dusky hue because wit and optimism shone through the whole work, but that may have been a slight misjudgement.

The first movement was both robust and rhapsodic. If the principal trombonist, Mark H Lawrence, and principal horn, Robert Ward, tried to establish a melancholy tone the jauntiness of the rowing rhythms worked against this somewhat and emotion seemed lost in a positive forward momentum MTT established. The lilting tempo was an undercurrent of the second movement, the first ‘Night-music’ marked ‘Allegro moderato’. Basically it is another march (because this should be apparent too in the first movement), but this one sways dreamily and there is nothing foreboding here. MTT is rather too knowingly pastoral here and perhaps there was too little nocturnal mystery.

To get to the second Serenade we have to go through the graveyard of the Scherzo that the composer marks ‘Shadowy’. It is a brilliant waltz macabre, and even though its ‘bump in the night’ ghostliness is lightened somewhat by a trio it all probably was not eerie enough on this occasion.

The gentle ‘Andante amoroso’ ‘Night-music’ that follows was a joy even here though there was a problem. I found the balance MTT achieved in the quieter moments throughout the symphony almost ideal but here he was seriously at fault with the guitar and the mandolin that from my stalls seat was almost inaudible and struggled to make an impact in the second movement. Both players were up at the back with the percussion, perhaps others heard them better than I did? Here we are in the world of the Wunderhorn symphonies once more complete with fleeting birdcalls, the entrances of the guitar and mandolin all mixed enchantingly with some sublime solo violin from Alexander Barantschik. In fact all the musicians play particularly beautifully here, notably the woodwind due to MTT’s expressive control.

The second Serenade was every bit a quiet interlude before an exuberant Rondo-Finale where under MTT joy is unconfined. Shostakovian, before Shostakovich, it argues back and forth in its Rondo-form between serious declamatory moments (triumphant brass) and inconsequential trills and slides in woodwind and strings. Almost posing the question - whither the symphony? – as music is on the cusp between nineteenth-century Romanticism and Schoenberg at the start of the twentieth? It is the brass, aided and abetted by the rampant timpani of David Herbert that wins out in the end and the conclusion is most definitely – ‘always look on the bright side of life’.

There was a sense of rightness about Tilson Thomas’s tempo choices on this occasion but the arc of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony may just have a bit more ‘darkness to light’ than the conductor allows it. Credit him with taking what is supposedly ‘problematic’ and having a clear-sighted, almost brash, riposte. His orchestra were with him every step of the way and were generally excellent with only a few moments of jet-lag in these early days of their European tour. A great time was had by all and my final carp? Well we have the benefit of a world class ensemble and an outstanding conductor, most of the audience have struggled through the vagaries of the London Underground’s upgrading work that seems to shut down all the lines on a Sunday that you might want to take you anywhere important – and what we get is an early start and only 80 minutes of music. Not great value for money in these straitened times!

Jim Pritchard

Seen and Heard
, one of the longest established live music review web sites on the Internet, publishes original reviews of recitals, concerts and opera performances from the UK and internationally. We update often, and sometimes daily, to bring you fast reviews, each of which offers a breadth of knowledge and attention to performance detail that is sometimes difficult for readers to find elsewhere.

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