Memorable Mahler Seventh by Daniel Harding and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

GermanyGermany Mahler Festival [2]: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Harding (conductor). Gewandhaus Grosser Saal, Leipzig, 22.5.2023. (GT)

Daniel Harding conducts the BRSO © Konrad Stohr

Mahler – Symphony No.7 in E minor

The Seventh is the one symphony by Mahler that many find the most perplexing and difficult to appreciate – perhaps the problem is the ability of the interpreter to discover the key to the composer’s conception rather than in poorly performed performances. Most recently, at the 2022 BBC Proms, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, under their chief conductor Kirill Petrenko successfully introduced their Seventh to an enthusiastic audience. The modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg welcomed the Seventh writing in 1909 of its ‘perfect repose based on perfect harmony’.

Certainly, the challenge of the three inner movements have confounded listeners because of the otherworldly nature that appears to counter the great opening movement and the joyous finale. Often referred to by the title Song of the Night, a description not chosen by the composer. An enlightening explanation of the work’s intricacies was offered by Stephen Johnson in his illuminating programme note: ‘The middle three movements can seem to belong to a world of their own: nocturnal, fantastic, sometimes weirdly ambiguous, sometimes vividly sinister. They project a world (or is it worlds?) from which the outer movements, impressive as they are, can seem disturbingly detached.’

The Seventh Symphony received its premiere under the composer’s direction in Prague on 19 September 1908, and the first German performance came in Leipzig when Arthur Nikisch conducted it at the Gewandhaus on 3 February 1921, while the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra first performed it on 28 January 1960 under Jan Koetsier.

The first movement, Langsam – Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo, opened with a solemn procession on the low strings, wind and bass drum, suggesting the sound of the stroke of oars crossing a calm lake before it was interrupted by the tenor horn of Lukas Gassner heralding two horns announcing the main idea in E minor. It led to a gorgeous yearning theme on the violins and was momentarily broken by an enchanted visionary moment on the trumpets – yet following passages of extraordinary virtuosity by the orchestra, the idiom was shattered suddenly by the violins proclaiming a fierce and violent coda.

The first Nachtmusik, Allegro moderato, is often referred to as a vision of Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’, yet it was the Netherlands composer Alphons Diepenbrock who suggested it was more ‘like a walk in the night’, and that ‘it is a march, full of fantastic chiaroscuro.’ The horns introduced an enigmatic theme supported by the woodwind and the tuba of Stefan Tischler, heralding an uncertain cello theme – shadowed deftly by a light-hearted shimmering sequence on cowbells, cymbals and the harp before the brass returned ominously, as if warning of dark forces.

The Scherzo is ‘like a shadow’ with dissonance on the percussion and the low strings that invoked a ghostly parody of a waltz, and there emerged a quirky theme by pizzicato cellos and double basses producing an unearthly sound before the Trio brought the movement to an ominous close.

The second Nachtmusik section is a serenade, Andante amoroso, led by the solo violin of Anton Barakhovsky in a theme of great beauty and followed by the solo horn of Carsten Carey Duffin – this was music as if from another world – like tears falling drop by drop from the chords heard on the guitar and mandolin, and accompanied by the harp of Magdalena Hoffmann, the flute of Philipe Boucly and Stefan Schilli on the oboe in a magical sequence.

The Rondo-finale brought us suddenly into the stark brightness of daytime with a glorious fanfare in C major as the brass and the timpani of Raymond Curfs transported us from the quietude of the Nachtmusik. There unfolded a series of variations led by the horn of Carey Duffin and Marco Postinghel on the bassoon in a passage that verged on parody with a trudging country dance of wild rhythms, with parodies on themes from The Merry Widow and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, and finally, a reprise of the opening march with the timpani and brass leading to the glorious closing theme on C major.

It was a thoroughly convincing performance in which every musician performed to the maximum of their capability – I do not remember a finer performance by this orchestra and of this great symphony. Once considered the ‘Cinderella’ of the Mahler symphonies – this was a triumph for Daniel Harding who delivered a magnificent interpretation revealing the Seventh as one of the composer’s greatest works. In all a memorable evening and surely one of the highlights in the 2023 Mahler Festival.

The performance is available on until June 21.

Gregor Tassie

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