From the Salzburg Festival VIII (Venezuelan Mahler 7)

AustriaAustria Mahler: Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 3.8.2013 (JFL)

Mahler: Symphony No.7

Picture courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli

Success in “Mahler 3” (see review), however rare or great, does not spell automatic success in Mahler’s considerably stranger, elusive Seventh Symphony—a work so full of ambiguous atmosphere, point blank banality, and ‘or-is-it’ irony that among all of Mahler’s eleven symphonies it seems to best resist the efforts of audience and conductors alike. The first movement is the least problematic, but starting with the brace of inner movements—Nightmusic I & II that buttress an eccentric Scherzo—the trickiness begins. And even when a conductor has mastered the proper nebulous shadiness of the center, there’s still the Wagner-reminiscing finale, of which no one seems quite sure whether its intent is ironic or not.

Given Mahler’s personality, irony is a tempting interpretation—too tempting, really. Especially since the by far most successful performance of it I’ve heard in concert was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who played it straight, and to the hilt. Ditto on record, where Pierre Boulez delivers the Meistersingerian good without flinching. In that sense it was a neat coincidence that just the night before, on the same stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus Stefan Herheim’s production (praised to the hilt by anyone participating in it) of Die Meistersinger took place. Perhaps some of the spirit got stuck on stage and would give off some positive C-major vibes to Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Orchestra.

Not all that much, as it turns out, but there were other things to admire: First and foremost the coordination and execution of the Scherzo by the inflated, 144-head strong orchestra. The punch and snap had Olympic qualities, authentically crude when called for, and absolutely together where necessary and in brief but enormously beautiful viola solo that frankly outshone any of the first violin solos.

That was a nice break from the Nigthmusics, neither of which really established a mood of hovering or even remotely dark mysteriousness, ever more energico than hushed as they were. If that wasn’t particularly impressive or quite at the level at which top-notch orchestras (to the standards of which the SBO must by now be held), at least the solo clarinet got a solo out of it that was to fall in love with. The finale was certainly not ironic in Venezuelan hands, but also not driven so fast that one couldn’t (and wouldn’t) stop and wonder about whether it should not be, after all. Much less fierce and up-tempo than the first movement, with less aggression and less vigorous attacks and less élan, the result, was a curiously exciting kind of ho-hum.

After that first movement, written by Mahler to stir the audience into rapturous applause and played just that way by Dudamel and his fiddling underlings, some audience members were overcome by their musical instincts and did actually applause. Fortunately the applause police, particularly alert and vigilant in Salzburg, intervened immediately with shussssshhhing to ensure proper concert etiquette. That meant that appreciative silence was ensured for the ensuing salvo of coughs and the orchestra tuning their instruments. Very nicely done, and demonstrating of course that no audience knows the music and its scripted applause-cues better than this marvelously sophisticated Salzburg audience.

This Mahler Seventh may not have been as satisfactory a performance as M3, but it solved one nagging quandary: I was never sure who would supply the Scherzo to my ‘Fantasy-Mahler 7’. Now I know: this one. It would go perfect at the center of a lineup that includes Barenboim for the first movement (Berlin Staatskapelle, Warner), Abbado (Berlin Philharmonic, DG) for the Nightmusic movements, and Nézet-Séguin (BRSO in Leipzig, live; alternatively Boulez/Cleveland/DG) for the Finale.

Jens F. Laurson