United Kingdom Mahler: London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 23.9.2015. (JPr)
Mahler: Symphony No 7
You may be coming to one of my reviews about Mahler’s Seventh Symphony for the first time and I make no apologies about repeating a timeworn phrase of mine: ‘A musicologist is someone who can read music but cannot hear it!’ This was announced at some study day or other I organised once and I am convinced by this – and with deepest respect to most musicologists – as I hear (I certainly could not read!) this Symphony.
Lindsay Kemp ended his detailed introduction in the programme to the Seventh Symphony by querying ‘What has it all been about? Well, few could doubt as this brilliant and intriguing 80-minute symphony scrambles to a jubilant conclusion that there has been an overall move from darkness to light. The passage of night into day has plausibly been suggested. But perhaps Mahler’s message (and legacy) here was also that a modern symphony could still stir the heart with the power of absolute music, the seamless and ineffable inter-relation of form and expression.’ To anyone reading the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s programme it seemed from the contributions of Lindsay Kemp and the conductor, Vladimir Jurowski that neither had a real understanding that, as I am convinced, nothing Mahler ever wrote was ‘absolute music’ and everything was there to illustrate or represent something, however subliminally.
I accept that with Mahler’s Seventh – which was composed in 1904-05 on the cusp of the expressionism of the Second Viennese School – it is never a work that you will come out of the Royal Festival Hall ‘humming the tunes’ to any great extent. If you did it is possibly because those Star Trek fans amongst the audience would recognise the influence of some passages in the Langsam (Adagio) on the famous theme music from that classic Sci-Fi series and of course all Wagnerians will recognise the Die Meistersinger Overture throughout the Rondo: Finale. It is not just me writing this as both allusions are well documented but neither merited a mention from Lindsay Kemp and indeed Wagner was named only once and that was in the context of his ‘intense expressiveness’ influencing Mahler in general.
I have long advocated that this is Mahler’s ‘Wagner’ symphony. It’s true that he never said so in as many words but Professor Steven Bruns has noted how Mahler played the Prelude of Die Meistersinger when he last conducted the Seventh and how ‘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’. This Symphony is possibly the most uncomplicated, straightforward and optimistic of his symphonies and an over-analytical approach such as Jurowski’s does it a disservice and makes it very episodic and schizophrenic. Admittedly these are words often used to describe this Symphony but it must be remembered that Mahler himself said ‘It is my best work and predominantly of a cheerful character’. I don’t know how often Vladimir Jurowski has conducted Mahler’s Seventh but it has proved problematic for many finer conductors than him and Bruno Walter, for instance, only conducted it during one series of performances. Near the end as the percussionist banged away at the cowbells with no sense of their importance to the structure of the music – and like a young child with a spoon and an upturned saucepan – I was getting a little miffed … to put it mildly.
There are of course ‘darker’ passages, and even Mahler indicated that the Scherzo should be ‘shadowy’ but the only potential horrors here are of a child’s ‘things that go bump in the night’ type. As the Night Watchman sings at the end of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger Act III ‘Beware of ghosts and spooks so that no evil spirit ensnares your soul’ … I could not myself give a better summing up of this third movement.
Mahler explained in a letter to his wife Alma about a journey across the lake to their home: ‘I got into the boat to be rowed across. At the first stroke of the oars the theme (or rather the rhythm and character) of the introduction to the first movement came into my head’. Turning now again to Wagner, after his own boat voyage to Spezia in Italy, sea-sickness and a long walk he recalled in My Life: ‘I fell into a kind of somnolent state, in which I suddenly felt as though I were sinking in swiftly flowing water. The rushing sound formed itself in my brain into a musical sound’ – so from this the opening of Das Rheingold is supposed to have evolved. Not conclusive, but a start of our journey (in a conspiracy-theorist sort of way) into what might have influenced Mahler in his Seventh Symphony. At this time it is believed Gustav considered himself to be like Hans Sachs and too old for his much younger Alma/Eva so it should not come as a surprise that there may be even more references to Die Meistersinger. So the ‘amorous suitor’ and the mandolin/guitar music of the second Nachtmusik (Night music) is probably a reference to Beckmesser with his lute from Act II of that opera. In that Act Beckmesser ‘serenades’ Eva at night with a lute … and of course the mandolin is a member of the same family of stringed instruments. Clearly Gustav somehow doubted Alma’s fidelity to their marriage. I believe nothing Mahler wrote in his symphonies was without some ‘meaning’ and the Seventh is no exception.
When will he get back to discussing the performance I can read in your thoughts? To be honest I have little to report apart from the how wonderfully the huge – undoubtedly too huge – orchestra with, for example, its 10 double basses, played. I am certain Jurowski’s account which clearly wanted to drag Mahler kicking and screaming into the expressionist soundworld of the Second Viennese School was perfectly fine if you like that sort of thing but I do not. With the vast open spaces of the Royal Festival Hall to play with everything was loud or louder and there was never any otherworldliness about the music. The two Nachtmusik movements were heavy-footed and oh those cowbells! I was once told by the eminent Mahlerian Donald Mitchell how they probably represent the desire for paradise on earth and also in the life beyond and that are best heard, like those other contributions, as part of the overall orchestral colour or ‘tumult’ and must never be heard clattering quite so prominently as they were here. There was never any sense of where the music was heading as it was driven relentlessly on and on and when not, many passages seemed simply repetitive and more unconnected than they should.
Top prices for this opening concert of the LPO season were £65 for an evening with just this single work and perhaps there is no surprise that there were rows of empty seats in the Royal Festival Hall.