Blasts from the Past: Gustav Mahler – Symphony No. 7

by 5:4

It’s often felt a bit strange for me that the composer about whose music i’m the most passionate, whose music occupies the largest percentage of my music collection, and whose music i’ve analysed and studied in more depth and therefore know more about than any other composer, is someone i pretty much never get to write or talk about, due to the simple fact that he’s not contemporary. Since i was a teenager, Gustav Mahler‘s music has been, if not exactly an obsession, then about as close to that as it’s possible to get without (for the most part) becoming unhealthy. Perhaps some day i’ll go off-piste for a while on 5:4 and explore his music and legacy more extensively, but on this occasion i’m going to restrict myself to taking a look at his one of his strangest creations, Symphony No. 7, as it’s recently been treated to a splendid new recording by the Bavarian State Orchestra under Kirill Petrenko.

Mahler’s music forms perhaps the most crucial connective tissue between the climactic period of late Romanticism and the tentative, nascent beginnings of the modern era. All of his symphonies, at least to some degree, straddle both sides – looking back, looking forward – and as a consequence, conductors need to actively consider where to place his music on the continuum between these very different ideas and outlooks, and to what extent they’re going to emphasise its Romantic and Modernist aspects.

More than most, Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is a work that emphatically looks to the future. i described it as one of his strangest creations, yet i don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that all of his symphonic output is strange, certainly when considered alongside the primary trajectory of Romantic symphonic thought through the nineteenth century. In terms of its raw emotional subjectivity, and the highly convoluted effect this had on the music’s design – on both macro (structural) and micro (orchestrational) scales – Mahler bears a closer resemblance to the radically idiosyncratic symphonies of Berlioz than to the likes of his more immediate predecessors such as Schumann, Brahms or even Bruckner. A Mahler symphony is an epic journey through heady, joyous, terrifying and ultimately overwhelming territory, where not only is the outcome far from certain, but also simply being able to keep track of one’s bearings as the piece progresses can be a challenge. In every sense of the word, it’s easy to feel ‘lost’ in his symphonies.

An essential part of this disorientation comes from the way its narrative turmoil manifests in highly contrasting stylistic shifts, switches and jump-cuts. In this respect, Symphony No. 7 is not fundamentally different from Mahler’s other symphonies, though it remains something of a neglected, even unloved, piece, less performed and generally less well-known and appreciated than the rest. i suspect the reason for this lies in part in the radicality of its musical language, and the way, more than previously, Mahler was really starting to push hard at conventions of harmonic continuity and contrapuntal clarity (or lack of it), in addition to its huge swings of mood that, at first listen, can seem wildly, almost wilfully, contradictory.

Completed in 1905, the symphony sits within what’s generally described as Mahler’s ‘middle period’, during which he composed his fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth symphonies. The Fifth (1902) charts a path from calamitous, storm-laden grief to hard-won triumph, while the Sixth (1904) backslides into god-forsaken tragedy and doom. It’s not necessarily helpful or accurate to regard the symphonies as having a kind of ongoing, interlocking continuity (though the first movement of Symphony No. 2 did begin life as the ‘funeral rite’ for the hypothetical protagonist of No. 1), but at the same time, listening to these symphonies one after the other does make for a cogent large-form narrative progression with a coherent long-term emotional contour.

The specific journey that the Seventh takes certainly seems to pick up where the Sixth had concluded – a piece that doesn’t so much finish as just collapse, exhausted and destroyed – with a dark, solemn opening gambit filled with march-like rhythms overlaid by a portentous tenor horn. Yet it doesn’t take long for the stylistic twists to begin; the steadiness of the initial march is whipped up to become the momentum for the first movement’s main theme, so swaggeringly confident that it seems practically implausible. In this new recording, Petrenko emphasises this distinction quite sharply, making the opening rhythms incredibly crisp (technically turning Mahler’s demisemiquavers into hemidemisemis) and giving a puffed-up, chest out swank to the theme, which then turns inward in the most gorgeous shift towards a (Richard) Straussian soft-veiled technicolor. It’s striking how in this performance all of these huge changes in attitude sound like they stem from the same (albeit fickle) mind. In that sense, one could argue Petrenko brings the Romantic sensibility to the fore in order to create a stronger sense of overall cohesion between these volte-face episodic spasms. What helps to keep this in check is a lack of exaggeration: these ostensibly conflicting musics are allowed to speak plainly and honestly, which only makes some of its light-to-dark transitions all the more imposing and troubling, and the internal conflict all the more extreme. Yet the Modernist nature of the piece is also emphasised in moments of harmonic rapture that at times resemble Debussy, and the ferocity of the concluding march makes it all too clear where Shostakovich obtained so much inspiration for his own symphonies, culminating in a climax with excruciating dissonances.

Where the Seventh is most forward-looking is in its trio of inner movements, the second and fourth of which are titled ‘Nachtmusik’. Though much-reduced from the scale of the rest of the symphony, there’s nothing remotely “Eine Kleine” about them; indeed, ‘Nachtmusik I’ ranks among the weirdest music Mahler ever composed. Odd angular shapes peppered with unpredictable accents and trills, and lines continually finding themselves gravitating to low registers, are central to the grotesqueries of this movement (it’s hard not to think of Tim Burton), which takes a turn for the fever dream as it passes through a brisk dance before finding itself, as if by magic, in the open air, to the miraculous accompaniment of, of all things, cowbells (Mahler’s instruction in the score (Fig. 84) could hardly be clearer: “the cowbells are always discreet and intermittent, played in realistic imitation of the ringing bells of a grazing herd”). The way the Bavarian State Orchestra keeps tilting the lightness of the movement into shadow is spine-tingling, and here too, Petrenko makes the febrile structure convincing, even as it progresses via fanfares to what sounds like lopsided cabaret music.

The third movement pushes this further, Mahler repurposing the concept of a scherzo into the ghostly waltz of an expressionistic nightmare (though not explicitly a ‘Nachtmusik’ it retains something of the same nocturnal aspect). While not as savage as in some performances, Petrenko gets the orchestra to push their instruments almost to the limit in the enormous accents that occur (the last of which, a colossal lower strings pizzicato, is marked fffff !), and which hark back to the enormous, unstoppable pile-driving hammer blows in the Sixth Symphony, here silencing everything in an instant. The lower instruments (especially the cellos and basses) are made truly ominous in the way they loom from beneath – something taken further in the second ‘Nachtmusik’ – and the final iteration of the waltz, now rendered a shrieky form of carnival music (again pointing towards Shostakovich), is wickedly macabre, though even more powerful is the way the orchestra shapes the movement’s subsequent breaking apart, Petrenko here deliberately allowing the weave of the symphony to come apart at the seams.

Even though ‘Nachtmusik II’ is essentially a serenade (replete with both guitar and mandolin), it’s a long way from the intensely heartfelt Adagio music that Mahler created for the Third, Fifth, Sixth (and, subsequently, Ninth and Tenth) symphonies. Instead, the Seventh reaches its point of maximum harmonic stress, despite the textures being arguably clearer and more transparent than anywhere else in the work. Though conveyed with a light cheerfulness, the melodies are more chromatic than ever, their accompanying harmonies increasingly oblique, together undermining their notionally tonal foundation, leading to a remarkable early sequence where for a short time (after Fig. 187) the music touches on the remoteness of what would come later with free atonality, reinforced by a mess of low pedal notes that confuse everything. Though pitched at a completely different dynamic level, the sense of clashing opposites is just as powerful here as in the first movement, Petrenko making its episodes feel alternately as if they’re lighter than air and suddenly laden with lead weights. This movement marks a turning point in the symphony as a whole, though, and while its language is genuinely bizarre, the overall direction is upward, nicely heralded in this recording by making everything transfixed two-thirds through, and emphasising the gorgeous tenderness that pervades ‘Nachtmusik II’ more and more. The closing bars clinch this, Petrenko making them a transcendent counterpart to the end of the Scherzo, just as fragile but now not falling apart but dissolving into dreams.

For all these Modernist adventures in the middle movements, the fact that this is still a Romantic symphony is made plain in the way that this gentle upturn becomes the catalyst for a hugely flamboyant festal finale, in the way that a teenager’s first kiss becomes the moment when full blown, “never-ending” (though inevitably short-lived) love is instantly called into existence. The jump cuts remain, though now they veer between parallel strains of celebration, in the form of dances and chorales. There are occasional retreats to rekindle the chamber intimacy of earlier, but the tone of Mahler’s finale is one of unabashed, fanfare-strewn pageantry. As if to prove the point, Mahler even brings back the main theme from the first movement, quickly squishing it into a major key version to show how little it now matters and how easily it can be dealt with. Petrenko and the orchestra don’t hold back at all here, at times making one feel almost crushed by the quantity of positivity they radiate, but clearly having delirious fun in the passages where they get to run amok. In this performance i love the way they make the ending come across: the penultimate chord asking at the last moment a final, “Really?”, to which the final note blasts an unequivocal “YES!”.

Though not hugely well-served in concert halls, Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 is quite well represented on disc. It’s hard to say whether this recording by Kirill Petrenko and the Bavarian State Orchestra is the very best i’ve heard, though it’s definitely right up there. The clarity of Mahler’s complex inner lines is absolutely superb, the tuttis are fittingly massive while the delicate music has delightful intimacy. Petrenko’s balance of Romantic and Modernist aspects is very nicely-judged, varying back and forth on the continuum as the situation demands rather than taking a single approach all the way through. It’s a riveting testament to the ongoing power and importance of this neglected, weird but utterly wonderful piece.

The first release on the new Bayerische Staatsoper Recordings label, Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 is available on both CD and digital formats; the CD comes in a beautifully presented digibook with lengthy texts (festooned with photographs) exploring the history of both the Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera) and the Seventh Symphony.

If this recording whets your appetite and you’d like to explore some alternate interpretations of Mahler 7 (and you definitely should), you’ll find a similar blend of romantic weirdness in the fantastic version by Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic recorded in the 1960s. Both Pierre Boulez with the Cleveland Orchestra and Bernard Haitink with the Concertgebouw Orchestra put more emphasis on bringing clarity to the complexity without sacrificing the symphony’s essential strangeness (the Boulez, in particular, is excellent in this respect), while Gustavo Dudamel’s more recent recording with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra aims to make everything seem plausible through sheer dauntless ebullience; i can imagine it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but it’s hard to argue with their marvellously exciting results. My own personal favourite, though, is with the conductor who, more than anyone else, cleaves to each and every detail in Mahler’s scores, in the process projecting its Romantic earnestness and Modernist oddities more than anyone: Michael Gielen – his recording with the SWR Symphony Orchestra requires a bit of a mental gear shift, but it reveals with unbelievable, startling clarity just how radical Gustav Mahler really was.

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