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Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 8 )
El Sistema • Simón Bolívar Orchestra

El Sistema • Simón Bolívar Orchestra

A Scherzo to Remember

Success in “Mahler 3” (see review), however rare or great, does not spell automatic success in Mahler’s considerably stranger, elusive Seventh Symphony—a work so full of ambiguous atmosphere, point blank banality, and ‘or-is-it’ irony that among all of Mahler’s eleven symphonies it seems to best resist the efforts of audience and conductors alike. The first movement is the least problematic, but starting with the brace of inner movements—Nightmusic I & II that buttress an eccentric Scherzo—the trickiness begins. And even when a conductor has mastered the proper nebulous shadiness of the center, there’s still the Wagner-reminiscing finale, of which no one seems quite sure whether its intent is ironic or not.

Given Mahler’s personality, irony is a tempting interpretation—too tempting, really. Especially since the by far most successful performance of it I’ve heard in concert was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who played it straight, and to the hilt. Ditto on record, where Pierre Boulez delivers the Meistersingerian good without flinching. In that sense it was a neat coincidence that just the night before, on the same stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus Stefan Herheim’s production (praised to the hilt by anyone participating in it) of Die Meistersinger took place. Perhaps some of the spirit got stuck on stage and would give off some positive C-major vibes to Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Orchestra.

Not all that much, as it turns out, but there were other things to admire: First and foremost the coordination and execution of the Scherzo by the inflated, 144-head strong orchestra*. The punch and snap had Olympic qualities, authentically crude when called for, and absolutely together where necessary and in brief but enormously beautiful viola solo that frankly outshone any of the first violin solos.

That was a nice break from the Nigthmusics, neither of which really established a mood of hovering or even remotely dark mysteriousness, ever more energico than hushed as they were. If that wasn’t particularly impressive or quite at the level at which top-notch orchestras (to the standards of which the SBO must by now be held), at least the solo clarinet got a solo out of it that was to fall in love with. The finale was certainly not ironic in Venezuelan hands, but also not driven so fast that one couldn’t (and wouldn’t) stop and wonder about whether it should not be, after all. Much less fierce and up-tempo than the first movement, with less aggression and less vigorous attacks and less élan, the result, was a curiously exciting kind of ho-hum.

Detail. Click for whole picture. Pictures above and below courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli

Mahler Seven on ionarts:

Nagno / Munich Philharmonic, June 20th, 2012

Nézet-Séguin / BRSO in Leipzig, June 21st, 2011

Haitink / BRSO, February 18th, 2011

Boulez / Concertgebouw, January 25, 2011
After that first movement, written by Mahler to stir the audience into rapturous applause and played just that way by Dudamel and his fiddling underlings, some audience members were overcome by their musical instincts and did actually applause. Fortunately the applause police, particularly alert and vigilant in Salzburg, intervened immediately with shussssshhhing to ensure proper concert etiquette. That meant that appreciative silence was ensured for the ensuing salvo of coughs and the orchestra tuning their instruments. Very nicely done, and demonstrating of course that no audience knows the music and its scripted applause-cues better than this marvelously sophisticated Salzburg audience.

Meanwhile young conductors everywhere could take lessons from Dudamel in how to take applause without coming across as a lime-light hogging prick or a disingenuously self-effacing, false-humility kind of tosser. He stands in the middle orchestra, beaming, taking the applause on behalf of the performers, even when they remain seated. None of those equally annoying, ritualistic “you stand up—no you take the applause—no, seriously, you stand up—no, you take the applause—alright, if you absolutely insist, I suppose I will” games.

The Mahler Seventh, briefly returning to the essence of the concert, was not as satisfactory a performance as M3 but it answered one nagging quandary: I was never sure who would supply the Scherzo to my ‘Fantasy-Mahler 7’. Now I know: this one. It would go perfect at the center of a lineup that includes Barenboim for the first movement (Berlin Staatskapelle, Warner), Abbado (Berlin Philharmonic, DG) for the Nightmusic movements, and Nézet-Séguin (BRSO in Leipzig, live; alternatively Boulez/Cleveland/DG) for the Finale.

* The participants chosen apparently by asking into the round of the Venezuelan musicians “Who wants to go to Salzburg this summer”, and then taking everyone who had their arm in the air by the count of three: Altogether more than 1300 El Sistema players are performing in Salzburg this year!


Jonathan said...

Thanks for the review and for your great survey of recorded Mahler 7ths. I was surprised not to see Horenstein's live recording which has been in and out of print for years on smaller labels. One of my favorites.

jfl said...

Probably the in-and-out-of-printness has made me not consider it... at the time (for the WETA Survey), I specifically only covered recordings that were attainable with reasonable ease or were outright IN print.

But then, I'm also not all that much of a Historic Mahler fiend... often it's memories that people love, more than objective performance details. (That's not to say that there aren't legitimately great early recordings out there, and this may well be one.)

Speaking of M7, I've just finished listening to the new SACD M7 with the Gurzenich Orchestra and Markus Stenz a couple times and was rather taken by it... more anon.