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Ionarts-at-Large: Mahler Seventh with Bernard Haitink

Just Mahler’s Seventh Symphony on a program might be considered short measure for a night out at the (Bavarian Radio Symphony) Orchestra. But no diet is best measured by how long it takes to eat it, but rather by its calorie count. Or by the time it takes to digest the intake.

I, for one, have fed on Mahler’s Seventh a good number of times (if rarely in concert, since it’s one of the least performed Mahler Symphonies), and I’m still digesting the music… and hearing it with Bernard Haitink and the BRSO on this February Friday was going to be just another attempt at coming to grasps with the work. It’s fair to wonder, by now, if its reputation (“difficult”) isn’t better known than the music itself.

Is the finale sardonic or trivial? An inspired counterpoint to the hushed atmosphere of the Nightmusic incidents or a witty send-up of Wagner? Or, to liberally paraphrase Theodor Adorno, just a load of tosh? Is the whole thing too complex and deep for us to grasp, or just too damn daft? (as per E.P.Salonen, although not in those exact words.) You can find musicians and critics with more Mahler exposure than I shall ever have for any and each of these positions.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Sy. No.7,
Abbado / BPh

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Sy. No.7,
Barenboim / Berlin St.Kp.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Sy. No.7,
Jansons / BRSO
BR Klassik

Perhaps the search for a thread, a storyline, an arch is simply not the right approach to the Seventh… perhaps it is best to just sit back and enjoy the different episodes as they appear? The crackling snappy first movement and its turn to lyrical, then tortured, pathos? The errant critters that creep, buzz, and crawl through the second movement (enough to fill two Ligeti string quartets and half a David Lynch feature) and the out-of-nowhere jubilations that sound like a rustic ballroom dance going on just inside someone’s head. The lonely voices and plain weirdness of the “Scherzo”, the stop-and-go chatter of voices, and its perfectly anti-scherzoesque spooky low grumbles? The mandolin induced sweetness of the second Nachtmusik, with violins and woodwinds and brass taking turns intoning a conversation as if the nightmare of the previous movement had never happened; as if the symphonic protagonist (if there is one) had just woken with no worries carried over. And yet, for all the loveliness, something seems askew. Twisted à la Mahler. Or are we already projecting? Are we so conditioned to find unmitigated happiness in Mahler—the man whom Haitink attested ‘a real talent for suffering’—suspicious?

After that fourth movement slowly drifts away—back to sleep, almost—a storm of timpani and brass fanfares comes at you all the sudden, like a most unwelcome alarm clock that reminds us that we completely forgot our appointment with the local Meistersingers welcoming Tristan and Isolde that morning, and we have only two minutes to slip into proper costume. It’s enervating, to say the least, but under Haitink’s hands it was neither pushed into the direction of Wagner-persiflage, nor did it come with its teeth clenched (as if the movement was channeled by the finale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony). Where the Scherzo was beset by all kinds of ghosts of the past—in fact as creepy and nightly as I’ve ever heard, this finale was straight forward; an innocent if slightly senseless adulation played with oodles of gusto and great opportunities for the trumpets to make up for what had been missed earlier.

The problem that floundering before a work brings, is that judging a performance—beyond technical merit—becomes virtually impossible. One could point out that the Nachtmusik might be preferred in rather more hushed tones… but what if not doing it like that was an interpretive choice? And focusing on technical aspects with any BRSO concert is a little boring, because they’re usually so pristine. This Seventh, too, had all the expected precision and bite. The cowbells (thank you, SNL, for never letting me just associate them with Mahler or cows again) of the second movement weren’t embedded in particular atmosphere, but they were nicely spaced out and resembled the real thing, rather than an “arthritic bovine stumbling through an ironmongery” as they had in Amsterdam. Amid general excellence and nary a cock-up, the principal horn Eric Terwilliger needs singling out for the supremely felicitous evening he had.

After the last cacophonous rush, crash, and snap, and the extended, partly baffled, ovations for Haitink and the players, I suspect few in the audience would have complained about the lack of a second part to the program. Instead they got home at a reasonable hour, and with plenty time to digest.

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