Mahler: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Yannick Nezét-Séguin (conductor) Gewandhaus, Leipzig, 21.5.2011 (JFL)
Mahler: Symphony No.7
Is Mahler Seventh three times in five months too much? Yes and no. Yes, because it’s much easier to overdose on Mahler in general than the average Mahler fanatic would have you believe (or ever admit). Yes, because Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in particular contains some staggering banalities (particularly in the inner movements). No, because even three times live in short succession (Boulez / RCO, Haitink / BRSO, and now in Leipzig, with Yannick Nezét-Séguin and the BRSO again), plus new recordings (Jansons, Zinman, Macal, Abbado DVD, Järvi – and listening to Jansons earlier recording on the trip to Leipzig) are not sufficient to get one’s head around the work… much less understand it. (Assuming there is much to understand, that is.)
I would have loved to ask Nezét-Séguin (36, interview at WETA) about whether he had a particular view of the work, but the busy—too busy, by all accounts— willowy conductor cannot be tracked down outside the concert hall these days. If he has discovered a narrative thread in the symphony, he’s not communicating it yet, but he sure knows how to conduct it. His and the orchestra’s performance were like a bold exclamation mark amid the performances so far and since; several levels above the other guest performances in terms of performance and interpretation.
The first movement had plenty outward (not to say ostentatious) emotion, ever evident carrying its feelings on its sleeve. The latter happens to be an essential ingredient in Mahler, and so it worked well enough. The BRSO wasn’t at its absolute pristine-precise (several of their first desks were missing) which detracted some, and added in other places, where sailing through Mahler without a trace of challenge can make the music come across as strangely glib.
The fleet first Nachtmusik was on the playful – or at least lively – side; the cowbells played with much more delicacy than the last time (though still the same tinny bells). The ‘double cello solo’ was gorgeous with klezmeresque inflection rarely heard; the brass and wind dialog was lovingly detailed. The central movement was the most night-like yet, with an ironically witty end, but muddled strings reminded of the above-mentioned banality never being far from hand. Perhaps a seating arrangement with antiphonal violins might have helped?
So far the performance was very good, but not quite exceptional. The fourth movement, Nachtmusik II, changed that. Picking up where the first of the inner movements had left off, this was a dream in hushed tones, not distanced nor very dusky, but with lots of characters well beyond the notes. It was grand music-making, with a yearning and constant fighting for each note. Unbelievably, the finale still topped this magnificence.
Few conductors seem to know exactly what to make of that movement when Mahler begins to cycles through variations upon variations of Die Meistersinger (opening of finale) and Tristan & Isolde (finale of first movement) in a mood that seems to crudely jubilant to be taken seriously and too trivial to suggest sardonic bite.
Nezét-Séguin took it seriously in its ludicrous way, went all out and stormed ahead with ecstatic abandon. Call it naïve or what you like, but as pure music, this finale suddenly worked in senselessly amazing and musical ways. In fact, it worked, triumphantly. Irresistibly compelling it hurled itself to its last wham and bang… and ended in – uniquely in my M-7 experience – instant, unanimous, standing ovations that lasted for the better part of ten minutes.