Mahler and Mozart from the BBC Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart and Mahler: Jan Lisiecki (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiří Bělohlávek (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 9.3.2012. (JPr)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K466
Mahler: Symphony No.7

Can someone responsible for the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s printed programme for this concert explain to me why they are still using the notes about Mahler’s Seventh Symphony I remember complaining about when I first read them at the BBC Proms in 2007? Resurfacing as they have done nearly five years later I repeat what I wrote then ‘It is just not good enough to leave an audience, many hearing the rarely performed Mahler 7th for the first time, so ill-informed about it. Andrew Huth in his notes again uses the adjective often ascribed to this symphony when he writes “Many people have found the Seventh to be the most problematic of Mahler’s symphonies”. What is unforgivable from anyone with ears to hear is when he writes earlier “Passing references, perhaps not intentional (my italics), can be heard to music by Schubert, Schumann and Wagner, to Bizet’s Carmen and even Léhar’s The Merry Widow.” ’ Especially now with the anniversary years a passing memory and all the symphonies having been heard several times – and discussed innumerable times – one thing on which surely all musicologists would agree is that Mahler rarely did anything unintentionally!

May I remind readers about the genesis of this symphony; Mahler’s duties as conductor at the Vienna Court Opera meant that while he wrote the two Nachtmusik (‘Night-music’ or Serenade) movements first in the summer of 1904 he then left them for a year, uncertain as to what to put around them. There followed the oft-quoted revelatory moment when he stepped into a boat to be ferried across an Alpine lake and got ‘the rhythm and the style of the introduction to the first movement’. So he put an eerie Scherzo in between the two Nachtmusik movements and bookended them with an Adagio and a Rondo-Finale.

Let me remind you of my thesis – that is more appropriate as the subject of lecture or extended article – and it is dependent on how ‘in thrall’ Mahler was to Wagner, something the musical world seems eager to suppress. Mahler would have known that in Mein Leben Wagner claims a precompositional ‘vision’ for the introduction to Das Rheingold while staying in La Spezia, Italy, where there were also boats and water. In the last years of his life there is also evidence that Mahler was very anxious about seeming to be the elderly Hans Sachs (from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger) to Alma’s youthful Eva (there is much that frivolously alludes to Alma in the Seventh). The use of the guitar and mandolin in the Serenades ironically mimics the unsuccessful wooing of Eva by Beckmesser with his lute playing. The Mahler expert, Professor Steven Bruns, has written: ‘The interval of the perfect fourth has special significance throughout Wagner’s opera, and the fourth is motivic in Mahler’s Seventh as well. Finally, Mahler was surely referring to the sunny C Major of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger in his strategic use of that tonality in the Seventh, especially during the closing measures.’ At the Prague première of this Seventh Symphony he followed it with the Die Meistersinger Overture and so with a few conceptual leaps, QED, we have Mahler’s unacknowledged ‘Wagner Symphony’ and there is absolutely nothing ‘problematic’ at all about it! Do I need to remind musicologists that Die Meistersinger was conceived as a discourse on unbending conservatism in vocal music and maybe Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is his discourse on anachronism in symphonic music?

Jiří Bělohlávek is in the last year of his tenure as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the orchestra played for him as well as I have heard them and together in this vividly compelling performance – as never before in my experience – they made Mahler sound a real Czech composer. Why this was is difficult to describe but the opening was brawny with plenty of tension and the haunting melody of the ‘tenorhorn’ (here, I believe, a euphonium) rose above the familiar dark grumbling of the strings. The cellos sounded particularly lovely in the first Nachtmusik section and Stephen Bryant, the leader, offered an evocative solo for the second one (Andante amoroso) where Mahler made that unusual decision to include the guitar and mandolin. Together these ‘Serenades’ were by turns seductive or scary … or a mixture of both. This symphony’s varied moods and emotions are punctuated by some of Mahler’s most eclectic sound effects, including cowbells, tambourine and rute.

The orchestra offered a vividly etched rendition of the sinister Scherzo, which Mahler called ‘shadowlike’ and under Bělohlávek’s urgent baton went from moment-to-moment with one unsettling passage rapidly moving on to the next one. John Chimes’s eye-catching timpani solo ushered in the rumbustious Finale with its exuberant counterpoint and celebratory percussion. Mahler had ended his Sixth Symphony in abject despair with a minor chord and the Seventh starts with that haunted ‘tenorhorn’ solo and the hint of a funeral march, so as Bělohlávek swept away all that had gone before the only final enigma about this work is where does this overwhelming sense of triumph actually come from? Years before Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ Mahler seems to be agreeing ‘If life seems jolly rotten/There’s something you’ve forgotten/And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing’.

Before the interval Bělohlávek and his more reduced forces provided a restrained and perfectly balanced accompaniment to Mozart’s 1785 Piano Concerto No.20. K466. It was – to my ears – given an understandably youthful but somewhat restrained and low-key performance by 16-year-old Wunderkind Jan Lisiecki. There was plenty of evidence of his refined articulation and nuanced phrasing and I was pleased that this often gentle and melodious concerto seemed to be offered as an organic whole than a disjointed series of more bravura moments. Much as I appreciated his delicate pianism Lisiecki outstayed his welcome and clung to the platform for a brief encore of Mozart’s exotically colourful Rondo alla Turca.

Jim Pritchard