A Magnificent Seven from Maazel

Mahler Symphony No 7: Philharmonia Orchestra; Lorin Maazel (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London 26.5.11 (JPr)

Lorin Maazel’s 2011 Mahler Cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall headed for its summer break with another memorable concert that drew a vociferous ovation from the audience at the end of an electrifying 90-minute concert. His account seemed to take longer than is usual for this symphony yet there never seemed to be a wasted moment; on the one hand there was a straightforward, down-to-earth approach to this complex music but also there was an intense – and relentless – sweeping energy to it all that was totally engrossing.

Mahler died in 1911, still largely unappreciated as a composer, but though many of his symphonies today enjoy a popularity of which the composer could have only dreamed, the Seventh Symphony is probably played the least and understood less well than any of the others. Even before this concert it is my favourite of the Mahler’s symphonies without the human voice. Why is this? Well, I sense that I have solved the riddle and that Mahler was thinking of his wife, Alma, when he wrote it just like she inspired – or affected – all his completed symphonies from the Fifth onwards. I will not resurrect most of the previous comments I have made on this symphony but will remind readers that around the time of its composition Mahler commented that he considered his relationship to Alma to be like that of Hans Sachs and Eva in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. For me in this music there are the very palpable worries of the older man who has married an attractive young woman, as well as a conspicuous joy about their life together. So this – plus Mahler’s reverence for Wagner – is the background to the Seventh Symphony – in my humble opinion.

Everyone who suggests the rhythmical accompaniment to the beginning of the opening movement is funereal is missing the point; it came to Mahler’s whilst rowing on the lake by his Villa and much of the rest of this music – that can seem a rush of fanfares, strange chorale-like moments, and hints of a Viennese waltz and military marches – is drawn from his surroundings and his chaotic life. Mahler seems – as Julian Johnson in his programme note agrees – to be on a treadmill that he ‘cannot manage to get off’. I am strongly reminded of some of chase music from Wagner’s Ring such as the opening to Die Walküre when Siegmund is fleeing his pursuers – and other similar moments. The last moments of the passionate coda while outwardly optimistic are tinged with a smidgeon of bittersweet regret as if Mahler cannot quite accept his luck in being married to Alma. It was clear from this first movement that this was going to be a great night for Maestro Maazel and his excellent orchestra.

Maazel’s same no-nonsense approach was just as rewarding in the middle movements, usually considered to be the more accessible music in this symphony. The first of the two Nachtmusik movements was exquisitely detailed and although its march-like quality was underplayed, for once, the cowbells made their mark. Too often they sound out faintly from some far point but Maazel wants us to hear every significant moment clearly. This point had already been heard in the first movement when the trumpet calls were not as ethereally distant as they sometimes are but this only seemed to enhance their dramatic impact. Maazel also wanted us to experience every detail of a Scherzo movement Mahler marked Schattenhaft (Shadowy). Notable here amongst the exaggerated waltz-like melodies was the meditative solo viola of Catherine Bullock. The nostalgic interjection from Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s violin suffused the second Nachtmusik and the mandolin and guitar were amplified – again for maximum impact in this sentimental serenade.

This all led to a very exuberant Rondo-Finale where Mahler seems to deconstruct the overture to Die Meistersinger and music from Lehár’s The Merry Widow (a favourite of Gustav and Alma). The rampant brass section brought the symphony to a conclusion with great Brucknerian fervour as if any darkness dwelt on earlier in the music we had heard was now banished by the first shafts of light from a rising sun. A final climax was cued in with such energy by the 81-year-old Maazel that his feet left the podium. He seems a man re-energized by these Mahler performances – this music can indeed have that effect on performers and audience alike. This was their seventh Festival Hall performance in this Mahler Cycle with three to come later in the year.

A pause at the start of the concert was caused by the need to bring on a music stand for Maazel’s score – ‘Nobody’s perfect’ was the conductor’s comment about needing the reassurance of the music in front of him … but with this performance he got as close to perfection as he might get in this cycle!

Jim Pritchard