Sunday, August 15, 2010

Why Mahler 7

I am often asked by musician colleagues why my email name is "mahlerseven." No one questions the composer half of the name, but why Mahler seven? One answer is that Mahler 3, 5 & 9 were unavailable. Another is that it's my favorite number. The real truth is that I am a champion of the unsung underdogs (in everything but sports, where I like the Yankees, Lakers, and Roger Federer).

Mahler's 7th is the least appreciated and most misunderstood of the composer's 10-odd essays in the genre. The more I chewed on that, the more I relished my choice.

It is a particularly good time for Mahler's 7th Symphony, AKA: The Song of the Night. I have recently referred to the daily broadcasts of the BBC Proms, and in this sesquicentennial celebration of Mahler's birth (2011 is also the centennial of his death) the Proms have already offered Mahler 8, 3, 4, 5, & this past week, 7. (You can listen online for two more days to Ingo Metzmacher's interpretation of the enigmatic symphony played by the German Symphony Orchestra of Berlin--NOT to be confused with the Berlin Philharmonic, which appears in a September Prom under Sir Simon Rattle to play Mahler 1 and Beethoven 4).

The Proms broadcast was inspiring--WHRO & Performance Today listeners may have caught Fred Childs' frequent mentioning of the novel fact the "prommers" clap whenever they please. If a final cadence--regardless of where in a work it appears--so inspires them, there is a burst of spontaneous applause. The 20+ minute opening movement of Mahler 7 ends with a rousing march, and elicited such applause. So did the middle Scherzo, and of course, the rousing Rondo-Finale. I enjoyed the performance, notwithstanding the inconsistency of the playing.

I was pleasantly surprised to find my BBC Music magazine waiting for me in my VB mailbox the night after listening to the Proms broadcast on my laptop in Roanoke. The "disc of the month" was none other than a live recording of Mahler 7, featuring the BBC Philharmonic, led by Gianandrea Noseda. The cover touted the "high-octane performance," which not only lived up to that moniker but surpassed it.

Mahler's 7th is the last of his middle-period triptych of "pure" symphonies (each of his first 4 featured voices &/or wordless settings of songs). The 5th & 6th symphonies are paradigms of the genre, and rank among the most popular and critically acclaimed works by any symphonic composer. Beethoven was hero or nemesis--or both--to every symphonist who followed him. As one of the first great conductors in western music, Mahler also tackled Beethoven as an interpreter. This dual relationship to Beethoven had the effect of raising the stakes for Mahler the composer.

Mahler's 6th is the most classically balanced of his symphonies (though it is Brucknerian in scope and length at 80'). It is in the minority of his symphonies comprised of the standard 4 movements. The 7th superficially resembles the 5th in construction--it is a five movement structure with a rondo-finale following an adagietto fourth movement which follows a central scherzo. Both symphonies also feature striking & imposing--though very different--opening movements.

The subtitle, "Song of the Night" has stuck with the 7th because Mahler labeled the 2nd & 4th movements "Nachtmusik" (Nocturne or Serenade). These nocturnes are scored for unusual consorts of instruments in chamber music textures, and one hears why composers ever since are so taken with Mahler the orchestrator--here was a composer "tone-painting" with new brush-strokes. Along with Richard Strauss, Mahler invigorated orchestration to bring new color to a familiar palette. If you're unfamiliar with this sui generis symphony, start anywhere and just listen: each movement is its own unique sound world. It's no wonder the piece has been so misunderstood. Innovation so often is.

Noseda's performance, after an initial couple hearings, ranks alongside my favorite interpretations. In no particular order they are: Abbado's (2nd) recording with the Berlin Phil, Bernstein's (3rd) recording with the NYPO, and Boulez's with Cleveland (all three are on the DG label). Making the shortlist are David Zinman's new super-audio-DSD recording with the Tonhalle (Zurich) and Rattle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

A great interpretation of this symphony must strike an Apollonian and Dionysian balance between the odd symmetry of the form (the five movements offer more contrast than continuity), the unusual scoring, and the architectural pacing required to get the massive opening movement off the ground. Since so many details beg for attention, the balance between highlighting felicities of orchestration, motivic gestures & poetic evocations must not supplant pacing the arc of the whole (for comparison, I have recordings that vary in length from 62' to 80' with every variation between).

It meets one of my criteria for being a great work--versus merely very good--because new details emerge with every listening. All of the interpretations I mentioned strike that balance of eliciting crystalline clarity of detail while not micro-managing a detour from the forward thrust of the symphonic canvas. Mahler's music--like Beethoven's--has an inexorable drive, regardless of the tempo. That might be the best comparison between the two great composer's very dissimilar 7th symphonies. Each movement is literally propelled by forward-moving rhythm.

The opening motive of the symphony is, in fact, a rhythmic one. Said by the composer to represent a "rowing" motion, it conjures the romantic image of a boat on a lake at night. Once that poetic world is entered, the nocturnal associations accumulate quickly.

One of my favorite moments in ALL of Mahler comes 2/3's of the way through the opening movement (the "Golden Mean," the "Vanishing Point"--ah, the potency of numbers...). The full orchestra slowly unites around the principal themes, and swells like a great wave about to crest and crash. It yields just before the climax, as if in mid-air, to lull back to the rowing calm of the opening.

Speaking of numbers, I have always loved the number 7. But that's as original as being a Yankees fan (though I hope a source of less contempt). Given the near-universal status of 7 as a special or "lucky" number, its mystical and spiritual qualities make it symbolic. It is the latter resonance with which I identify. I came across a droll quote by the writer Terry Eagleton that parses one of the distinctions between religion and spirituality:

"There is a document that records God's endless, dispiriting struggle with organized religion, known as the Bible."

Mahler's symphonies document his struggle as a thrice-outcast artist: "a Bohemian [Czech] in Austria, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew throughout the world."

He predicted his symphonies--most of which were misunderstood &/or maligned during his lifetime--would not become popular for 50 years. Bernstein helped usher in the "Mahler Boom" in the 60's. It has only crescendoed since.

Among other reasons to add Mahler 7 to your favorites:

*The eerie colors & qualities of the 2nd and 3rd movements. If the opening Langsam is a grand romantic nocturne, the first true nocturne (Nachtmusik I) is otherworldly. The Scherzo is literally shady. Schattenhaft (shadowy) is the marvelously ambiguous stylistic directive.

*The mandolin solo in the 4th movement (Nachtmusik II). Sing the opening violin theme--it's nothing but a simple descending (diatonic) scale, and yet it's magical.

*The timpani flourish that heralds the Rondo-Finale--it contains all three of music's building blocks in one swift motive: rhythm, melody, and harmony. That's not your average writing for the kettledrums!

*The ebullient, eccentric, infectious & irreverent Rondo-Finale as a whole (Mahler mocks everyone from Lehar to Wagner to himself). I am reminded why I love this composer--and music itself--every time I listen.

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