Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, sometimes subtitled “Song of the Night,” is the composer’s most wayward symphony. It’s not one of the pretty ones. With five seemingly mismatched movements, the 80-minute piece doesn’t cooperate with itself in the manner of other Mahler symphonies — and certainly not with the history of western music. The final movement can be so bewildering that Esa-Pekka Salonen (one of the smartest conductors out there and a fine composer himself) has removed the symphony from his repertoire.
Yet the Berlin Philharmonic, in its hotly awaited return to the U.S., made the M7 (as it will be called from here on) the centerpiece of its current U.S. tour, as heard on Thursday Nov. 10 at Carnegie Hall.
No blazing Ein Heldenleben here. The orchestra’s lighter alternative program — Mozart and Korngold — had no crowdpleasers. Instead of the beloved Korngold Violin Concerto, the composer was represented by the Symphony in F#, Op. 40, which is by turns sublime and trivial. The ever-challenging Andrew Norman was also on hand with a new, Kurt Vonnegut-inspired piece, Unstuck, which is quite interesting to me though I’m not sure whom else I would recommend it to. Since the Berlin Phil packs houses no matter what it plays, these programs dared audience to love them. To judge from last Friday’s live stream from Berlin and Thursday’s Carnegie Hall concert, the gamble paid off.
The history of Mahler performance over the past 50 years has been a journey from generalities to specificities. Mahler scores are dense with performance directions, many of which were ignored until recent decades. But it seems that the more information there is to take in, the more interpretive possibilities expand. Berlin’s chief conductor, Kirill Petrenko, had the piece in a constant state of metamorphosis, and with so many moving parts (including folksy cow bells and a mandolin) that the performance required extreme concentration. Wisely and amazingly, Petrenko seemed to use the final movement as his starting point rather than as some symphonic appendage to finish up with. Theories abound as to what Mahler was up to with the final movement’s crowded succession of off-kilter fanfares as the other instruments race hither and thither as if inside an orchestral ant hill. (Some say the music is full of buried quotations from operettas which have sunk into obscurity; I don’t buy it). Petrenko applied the final movement’s recklessness, its threat that the mismatched parts will collapse into each other, to the previous four movements, and it got the entire work to make sense.
The orchestra’s ensemble was solid, though any given gesture was busy changing colors every few seconds. With that heterogeneous quality came shameless, even infectious vulgarity. Moments of heaven-sent revelation — which can be islands of sanity for listeners attempting to come to terms with the piece — weren’t immune to quirky ,ungracious wind solos peeking in around the edges. Generally, the M7 wind writing was more dominant than usual, and loaded with expression, information and details. That chrome-plated string sound which was heard pretty much throughout the Claudio Abbado era (1989-2002) and much of Simon Rattle’s tenure (2002-2018) was mostly not called for in this symphony (remember, it’s not one of the pretty ones) but was all the more impressive for being used sparingly. The performance had a Russian accent in the form of an earthy humor that one has come to associate with Stravinsky. Shostakovich’s mordant irony was also felt. And it all fit the M7 so well that the symphony seemed to have more in common with The Rite of Spring than Mahler’s later Symphony No. 8. (PS: the final moments felt like the Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov.)
As a point of reference, one has to ask how the Russians have performed the M7 over the years. Hard to say. But one of the few recordings of the symphony from the Soviet era is a 1975 outing by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Kirill Kondrashin. Vulgar? More than Petrenko. But while Kondrashin made the waltz passages of the third-movement scherzo into a sort of Viennese parody, Petrenko was more interested in tapping into what might be underneath it, as if lifting up a rock and finding all kinds of unsavory things growing underneath. If the Berlin performance was a breakthrough, it was based on the idea that the symphony, overall, feels more authentic when it’s nastier. But have the Russians known that all along?