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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 mis-matched movements, the 80-minute piece doesn’t cooperate with itself, with 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 entire 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 tour programs, heard on Thursday Nov. 10 at Carnegie Hall. No blazing Ein Heldenleben here. The orchestra’s lighter alternative program - Mozart and Korngold - had no crowd pleasers. Instead of the beloved Korngold Violin Concerto, the composer was represented by the Symphony in F, which is at turns sublime and trivial, plus the ever/challenging Andrew Norman in new, Kurt Vonnegut-inspired piece xx is quite interesting to me though I’m not sure who else I would recommend it to. The Berlin Phil packs houses no matter what it plays, though these programs were daring audience to love them. To judge from last Friday’s live stream from Berlin and Thursday’s Carnegie Hall concert, the gamble paid off. Back to Mahler. Any M7 in New York is challenged to withstand comparisons to Bernstein’s late-in-life darker-than-dark NY Phil performances. Berlin Phil chief conductor Kirill Petrenko, wisely and amazingly, seems to use the final movement as his starting point rather tha something to put up with. Theories abound as to what Mahler was up to with its crowded succession of off-kilter fanfares while the other instruments race hither and thither like an orchestral ant hill. One theory: It’s full of buried quotations from operettas that have sunk into obscurity. But the qualities that Petrenko has brought to the other movements is the final movement’s reckless sense of threatened disassemblage. Any given stretch of music might fall apart at any moment, so busy is any given orchestral gesture turning colors every few seconds. That heterogeneousness infected the entire symphony also 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 peaking in around the edges. 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 as though the more information there is to take in, the more interpretive possibilities expand. Petrenko had the piece in a constant state of metamorphosis, making this 80-minute piece - with folksy interludes that include a mandolin and cow bells - a supreme challenge to the concentration of the performers. But Petrenko and his Berlin Philharmonic most definitely have it. That chrome-plated string sound that 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) and was heard only when it truly counted. In its place, the M7 wind writing was more dominant and loaded expression, information and details. More than that, the performance had a Russian accent with an earthy humor that one has come to associate with Stravinsky. Shostakovich’s mordant irony was also felt. And it all fit the M7. Of course, one has to ask how the Russians have performed the M7 over the years. Hard to say. 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-ovement scherzo sorry of a Viennese parody, Petrenko was more intersted 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 performance was a breakthrough, it was based on the idea tht the symphony -overall - needs to be nastier. It felt profoundly authentic. That's what we want out of a Mahler performance.