Saturday 13 June 2009

Mahler, Freudian pioneer - Salonen's psychologically astute Mahler 7th

Mahler’s Seventh Symphony doesn’t quite fit in with the usual Mahler fascination with metaphysics, and is something of a Cinderella compared with blockbusters like the 5th,, 6th, 8th and 9th symphonies. Yet it has unique charms. Clues to performance are embedded in the orchestration, so it’s a test of any conductor to hear how he understands them as he builds an interpretation.

Esa-Pekka Salonen produced an original and valid approach with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. His Mahler 7th doesn’t rely on big flashy effects to impress the audience. Instead he’s subtle, as befits a piece with such emphasis on night and shadows. At night, images are blurred, details only briefly perceptible, hidden by darkness. What we hear is elusive, disguised. We need to be alert to subtle hints of what is not revealed.

The First movement starts conventionally enough with brass fanfares, often interpreted as a kind of funeral march. But is it anything so concrete? Mahler writes lots of military processions, but here Salonen indicates that it’s no ordinary, daylight march but a progression into another mode of being, into sleep, into the world of dreams. Gradually the ensemble fades and solo violin emerges, sweetly poignant. It’s as if the hustle and bustle of daily reality has gone, and we’re somewhere more private and intimate.

Thus, we flowed gently into Nachtmusik 1, the first of the two movements where hushed sounds evoke mystery. Alma Mahler said that the composer thought of Eichendorff while writing, and perhaps that’s true, as Eichendorff was a master of magical, almost surreal night images. Verschweigene Liebe”, for example (set by Hugo Wolf) specifically refers to the idea of night as an escape from daytime consciousness. “Die Nacht is verschweigen, Gedanken sind frei”. (The night is mute: Thoughts run free).

Thus the atmosphere of secrecy in this performance, created by the delicacy of detail. The elaborate programme notes to this series “Vienna: City of Dreams” refer to the idea of magic in this symphony, and indeed the idea of enchantment is present. But Mahler was not one to fluff about with fairies. Even when he’s setting folk tales with magic elements, like songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, there’s a very adult, unsentimental awareness in his work. He’s not a gullible believer, his magic comes from an awareness of the irrational forces in the human psyche.

In short, Salonen relates this symphony to Mahler’s interest in psychology and the power of the unconscious. It’s disappointing that this series, with its ostentatious claims to connect music with what was happening in Vienna at the time, undercuts the very importance of the period by frequent references to the past, as if Vienna 1900-30 was a throwback to the 19th century rather than a time of quite revolutionary change. This symphony really does evoke the idea of a city of dreams. Certainly lip service is paid in the notes to Freud and other thinkers, but the message hasn’t go through to the actual core of the texts, which defeats the whole purpose of the series. Perhaps that’s because the series is aimed at a very general audience that might be scared off by any hint of modernity. There’s infinitely more to Mahler than Wagner. Indeed, the more you think about the music, what’s interesting about Mahler is that he’s not Wagner.

There is Romanticism in this symphony but it’s not there as frivolous sugar coating. Eichendorff was by no means the only poet who wrote in the Romantic vein. Think of Gottfried Herder, the father of folk-oriented Romantic poetry, a key figure behind the mindset of the period. Brentano and von Arnim, who compiled the collection that is Des Knaben Wunderhorn knew that fairy tales had menacing undercurrents. And we have only to think of Goethe’s Erlkönig, which Mahler knew, to appreciate that magic and dreams were a framework for describing the id and the subconscious long before Freud devised the terms.

Fortunately Salonen and the Philharmonia know their Mahler well. Mandolins and guitars reference strolling troubadors serenading lovers. Indeed, the recurrent “call and response” instrumental pairings may also support the image, which puts the unusual structure of the symphony into perspective : two Nachtmusiks of different characters calling to each other over the divide of the middle movement. Conventionally a middle movement is central, but Mahler turns the concept on its head. Instead, as with so much else in Mahler, there’s a strong sense of direction. In its quiet way, the symphony is heading towards a powerful conclusion.

Salonen’s understated delicacy allowed the sensuality in the piece to emerge, langorously. Troubadors sing of love, albeit often unrequited love, and love is an “altered state” rather than something coldly calculating: an example of the irrational in normal life. I was half hoping for some sensuous portamenti, but Salonen didn’t oblige. James Clark, the concertmaster, obliged with some lusciously pure playing, and the strings responded – “call and response” again. Lovely rich winds, too, especially the lower tones – Gordon Laing’s contrabassoon deeply resonant.

In this symphony, the brass is important. I’ve heard performances collapse when something went horribly awry with one horn – the poor player has probably never lived it down. No such accidents here. The Philharmonia is far too good, and Salonen rehearses them well. Indeed, it’s heart warming to hear the musicians speak of this conductor. London has gained immeasurably, and Los Angeles can have Dudamel.

Oddly enough the cowbells sounded more ragged than usual. They aren’t the most controlled of instruments, and at first I thought it disrupted the flow. Then I realised, cowbells are supposed to sound ragged, as anyone who’s heard the cows being herded home from alpine meadows can attest. Mahler knew all about cowbells from personal experience. So perhaps the cowbells indicate a wildness and freedom beyond the normal ambit of formal symphonic playing? Perhaps they, too, hint at the wildness of the subconscious ? Gedanken sind frei. Mahler may not have set the poem, but its spirit infuses this symphony.

And so to the all-important climax in the final movement. It builds up in fits and starts, rather like slow awakening, but gradually the major keys assert themselves firmly. No more irony now, we’re back in the real world. Or are we? Woven into the tumult are those cowbells again, reminding us that disorder will return as surely as day turns into night.

Pairing this symphony with Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces was a good choice. Like the symphony, the disparate pieces together add to a coherent mood. Berg was still very young when he wrote it – alas he was never to get old – but already he’s grasped the concept of music as act of freedom. The violin stands up to the massed orchestra but is eventually overwhelmed by the savagery of the March. Or is it? As the music begins to distort, maybe there’s hope for the subconscious to escape.

Please see the review HERE and look at the site

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