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Ionarts in Florence: Staatskapelle Berlin Plays Mahler 7

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Mahler, Symphony No. 7, Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim
(released March 21, 2006)
After an intense Mahler fifth the night before, the Staatskapelle Berlin returned to the Teatro Comunale di Firenze on Wednesday night for the last concert of this summer's Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. This time, music director Daniel Barenboim led Mahler's seventh symphony, a recording of which he and the orchestra released last year. (See Jens's review of the Michael Tilson Thomas recording with the San Francisco Symphony.) The seventh is a murkier, less transcendent work, celebrating instead more homespun themes through the evocation of the Austrian landscape and folk music. There are several forceful sections, best suited to Barenboim's musical temperament, like the booming crescendo before the repeat of the first movement's opening section, as well as that movement's berserk military march, and the triumphant conclusion of the final movement. Much of the symphony's more muted passages, especially the two Nachtmusik movements (composed earlier by Mahler in 1904, before the rest of the work, finished in 1905), may not appeal as much to him, and his decision to conduct from a score, which he eschewed for the fifth symphony, may indicate a different awareness of its structure.

The heroic first movement, with veiled references to Strauss's Salome, is a good indication of how American film music basically takes up where late Romanticism left off: one of the main themes, which begins with two ascending fourths, is suspiciously similar to the theme of the television show Star Trek. Happily, the excellent principal trumpet was flawless right from the opening measures, which showed that the slips heard the previous evening were the result of an off night. There were powerful contributions again from the principal horn (echoed beautifully by the stopped horn, as if from a distance, in the memorable dialogue that opens the second movement), as well as the infernal trombones and baritone.

Ionarts at the
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino:

Staatskapelle Berlin, Mahler Seventh Symphony (July 4)

Staatskapelle Berlin, Mahler Fifth Symphony (July 3)

La Fura dels Baus, Die Walküre (June 29)

La Fura dels Baus, Das Rheingold (June 27)
The orchestra set the stage well for the first Nachtmusik movement, a night in the Alps, with the song of nocturnal birds and insects whirring from the superlative woodwind section. Again, Barenboim inspired a balletic lilt in the lovely night dance heard later in the movement, followed by the iconic sound of cowbells in the distance. (That sound in the Swiss Alps is a sonic memory digitally preserved in my brain after a particularly beautiful visit there years ago.) These sounds were likely in his ears during his time in the Southern Tyrol in the summer of 1904, when he visited Toblach and other destinations along the road to the Lake of Misurina. As carnival sounds (glockenspiel) dissipated and distant bells tolled (gong, answered by harp), the night fell still. The second Nachtmusik in the fourth movement was an impassioned nocturnal love song, featuring fine playing from a guest performer on the mandolin, again closing in stillness.

If there is no devastatingly gorgeous Adagietto movement in the seventh, as in the fifth, there is an outstanding scherzo in the third movement that represents the symphony's high point. Barenboim gave it a nervous, insistent energy, with the sound of the violin runs like rushing wind. It is an upbeat piece, both exciting and sinister, that received a fine reading here, with only a couple of minor miscues in the final measures. After considerable restraint, Barenboim could let loose in the fifth movement, where there are both extended fugal buildups and some dance-inspired sections. In a sense, Barenboim often gives this excellent orchestra its head, sometimes not even indicating a beat, preferring only to arrange levels and give cues. The mutual respect of the musicians, including Barenboim, who has enjoyed a long and successful tenure in Berlin, was clear during the ovations. Many applauded as their leader lovingly had many of them stand one by one, or in sections, in appreciation of their efforts. It was a touching gesture.

The concerts of the next Maggio Musicale Fiorentino will begin in May 2008, in Florence. Ionarts will be reviewing concerts here in Siena for the next several weeks.

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