United Kingdom Mahler: Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Kirill Petrenko (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 1.6.2018. (JPr)
Mahler – Symphony No.7
Many in Seen and Heard International’s constantly growing readership will not have read my comments on programme notes about Mahler’s Seventh Symphony before, so I apologise in advance to those who realise I am repeating myself. It is just simply not good enough for an audience – many of whom might be hearing this Mahler’s symphony for the first time – to be given so little worthwhile information about it. Stephen Johnson’s first paragraph included how ‘among Mahler devotees it is now one of the most enthusiastically discussed and argued-over of the nine complete symphonies’ and then virtually avoids any discussion or argument and – with respect – continues as if classical music is just a mere succession of notes a composer has randomly put together. I recall Andrew Huth in his notes for the BBC Proms mentioning ‘Passing references, perhaps not intentional [my italics], can be heard to music by Schubert, Schumann and Wagner, to Bizet’s Carmen and even Lehár’s The Merry Widow.’ Certainly with what we know now about Mahler, surely all musicologists should agree he is unlikely do anything unintentionally.
Briefly, Mahler’s duties as conductor at the Vienna Court Opera meant that while he wrote the two Nachtmusiken (‘Night musics’) first in the summer of 1904 he then set these movements aside for a year unsure as to how to continue. There followed the oft-quoted revelatory moment when he stepped into a boat to be rowed across an Alpine lake and ‘found the theme (or rather the rhythm and character) of the introduction to the first movement’. So, he eventually bookended them with an Adagio and a Rondo-Finale with a danse macabre-like Scherzo at the centre.
There was no mention of Richard Wagner by Stephen Johnson and I must reiterate how in thrall Mahler was to him. Wagner claims a precompositional ‘vision’ – very similar to Mahler’s – for the introduction to Das Rheingold while in La Spezia, Italy, with its boats and water. In the last years of his all-too-short life Mahler was very anxious about appearing to be the elderly Hans Sachs to his young wife, Alma, being just like Eva in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Indeed, there is much that frivolously alludes to Alma in Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. The use of the guitar and mandolin in the Nachtmusiken could ironically mimic the unsuccessful wooing of Eva by Beckmesser with his lute playing. 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.’ I believe there is enough evidence that this is probably Mahler’s unacknowledged ‘Wagner Symphony’, and it has become the one of his that is probably my favourite now!
There was more than a hint of Veni, vidi, vici to the performance of Mahler’s Seventh by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Kirill Petrenko both of whom – individually or together – are rare visitors to the UK. They came at the end of a tour, brought Wagnerian grandeur to their 75-minute account of the symphony and departed – I suspect – straight for their flight back home. A Wagner encore would have cemented what Petrenko undoubtedly recognises in the symphony.
Petrenko’s movements were often engagingly balletic on the podium and – with a genial expression on his face almost throughout – he showed how a work with so many supposed rough edges can succeed by focussing on its shining lyricism. If it is meant to veer from darkness to light, then the darkness that Petrenko allowed was never more than the hues and shades of twilight since optimism and wit pervaded everything we heard. It dawned on me that what I have read described as the music’s ‘parodies of Leháresque middlebrow Viennese kitsch’ now actually sounded like Mahler’s homage to Richard Strauss. The two composers had a 24-year relationship and Mahler once said of his friend: ‘Strauss and I come from different sides of a mountain. One day we shall meet.’ Perhaps this is where they eventually did in music. The Bayerisches Staatsorchester comes from Munich where Richard Strauss was born, and he famously worked with them and its predecessor (the Musical Academy of Munich) and, of course, the orchestra accompanied a number of Wagner’s operas during their first performances at the National Theatre.
The opening Adagio was both robust and rhapsodic and although the trombonist and tenor-horn solos attempted to establish an elegiac tone the thud of Petrenko’s oars somewhat worked against this emotion and it got lost in the unrelenting forward momentum that was established. A lilting tempo unpinned the second movement, the first ‘Night music’ marked Allegro moderato. This is another march (because this should be apparent too in the first movement); Petrenko allowed it to sway dreamily with little that was foreboding about this nocturne since it was all very pastoral and Schubertian. To get to the second ‘Night music’ we are supposed to go through the graveyard of the Scherzo that Mahler marks ‘Shadowy’. If there was any of the macabre here, they must have just waltzed themselves to death! The gentle Andante amoroso ‘Night music’ that followed was an absolute joy. Petrenko achieved a rare balance for his orchestra with the guitar and mandolin that was even more remarkable given the unfamiliarity of all concerned with the notorious acoustics of the Barbican Hall. Here we are in the world of the Wunderhorn symphonies once more with some fleeting birdcalls and the contribution of the guitar and mandolin mixed enchantingly with some sublime solo violin from first concertmaster David Schultheiss. Supremely accomplished as they were up to this point the ensemble played particularly beautifully here – notably the woodwind – thanks to the flamboyant Petrenko’s expressive control.
That second ‘Night music’ proved an interlude of quiet reflection before the exuberant Rondo-Finale where for Petrenko – and consequently all the audience – joy was unconfined. The music goes back and forth between the serious declamatory moments (triumphant brass) and inconsequential trills and slides in woodwind and strings. Wagner’s Die Meistersinger is an opera about opera, so this clearly is a symphony about symphonies and it is almost as if the question is being posed: ‘Whither the symphony?’ When Mahler composed his Seventh Symphony music was on the cusp between nineteenth-century Romanticism and Schoenberg at the start of the twentieth? It was the brass, aided and abetted by the rampant timpani of the Ernst-Wilhelm Hilgers, that won out in the end and the conclusion was most definitely – ‘always look on the bright side of life’ and to the future.