Nagano Downriver: Mahler’s Seventh in Munich

25/06/2011

Mahler: Munich Philharmonic, Kent Nagano (conductor) Philharmonie Gasteig, Munich, 20.6.2011 (JFL)

Mahler: Symphony No.7

When it rains, it pours. Mahler’s Seventh Symphony has long been the hold-out among Mahler’s mature works as the only Symphony (or Song Cycle) I had never heard in concert. Now I’ve heard it four times in relatively short succession: with Boulez, Haitink, Nezét-Séguin, and, last week, Kent Nagano, who crossed the Isar from the Bavarian State Opera to conduct the Munich Philharmonic—in historical principle, if not current practice, one of the great Mahler orchestras—which he had last done in 2008 for Messiaen.

The three performances prior to Nagano may not have helped me wrap my head around the work yet (orchestra musicians have suggested to me that only playing it ten times in a row on tour helps), but that last experience in Leipzig, Nezét-Séguin driving the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra through the fifth movement like a musical madman, set the bar high for pure enjoyment.

Harking back, that reckless speed-demon finale—testing the limits even of the so assured BRSO—was so overwhelming that it left everyone in the Gewandhaus stunned, indeed speechless. When Riccardo Chailly found his speech again, he kindly-critically tut-tutted Nezét-Séguin’s tempo choices, suggesting ‘the obviously talented young man has still much to learn about Mahler’s tempo indications’, but even then he admitted that the result was to spectacular to quibble for long.

Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien: Voltaire knew about a music critic’s dilemma. This was quite good, but in comparison (and given the onset of seasonal Mahler-fatigue), it suffered.

Playing the Seventh for a fourth time in four days, including a day trip to Ravenna and back, the Munich Philharmonic turned in a very good, slightly tired performance that was—not the least thanks to Nagano—more than the sum of its occasionally wobbly parts. From the calm-yet-energetic beginning over a (too) homogenous tremolo to the (initially) solid and sonorous, even brass (the domineering horns, with Jörg Brückner in front) to the unbridled timpanist (Germany’s loudest): all contributed to a rich, dark sound with lots of depth that came through even when the first violins got entangled in the notes or when the non-horn brass rejected the idea of unison work.

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Mahler, Symphony No.7,
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The cowbells—there must be standard issue cowbells that most orchestras have, and they all sound pretty awful—were not as bad as I’ve heard lately, but too direct for the inner movements, and too clear. Mahler’s “Night-music”, which doesn’t shy away from banality, sounds better (to these ears) when it is hushed and distanced; the conductors I have lately heard seem to opt for something more strident and well lit. Darker clouds moved in—appropriately—in the Scherzo, which was littered with exclamation marks and wonderfully exaggerated retarded stops and false starts. The second Nachtmusik went by without mishaps or particular distinction, but the finale was well led up to through the fifth movement, surviving a temporary slacking of energy.

The third concert in Munich was a ‘student concert’, not quite sold out but packed with a youngish crowd between 20 and 30. Unfortunately no one told them that only coughing, sneezing, and tuning are appropriate noises between movements, whereas any show or betrayal of emotion is of course much frowned upon. What do these kids think? They’re not in the Philharmonic hall for entertainment. This is culture! Serious business, best approached with a stern furrow between the brows and polite applause starting no sooner than one note before the symphony has finished (so as to indicate one’s intimate knowledge of the score)!

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