Of all Mahler’s symphonies, Symphony no 7 is controversial because there are many scattered clues as to its interpretation, some wildly conflicting. It 's emotionally ambivalent, hence the variations in performance practice. This is not a symphony where “received wisdom” has any place.
The opening bars were inspired by the sound of oars, on a boat being rowed across a lake. Immediately an idea of duality is established, bassoons paired with horns, their music echoed by strings and lighter winds. The "oars" gently give way to a slow march which will later develop in full, manic force. If the horns sounded slightly sour, this was no demerit, for distortion pervades this whole symphony, where all is heard under cover of night. Beneath the gentle surface flow disturbing undercurrents.
Metzmacher conducts with real aplomb, rather, I suspect, like Mahler did himself (see picture). He smiles, and rounds his fist in huge, expansive gestures, and the musicians respond with richer, rounder playing.
Despite the nightmare aspects of this symphony, humour keeps breaking through. Cowbells in a sophisticated orchestra? Perhaps Mahler is reminding us that life is about other things than being too serious. Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin's cowbells are wonderfully resonant, truly Wunderhorn-like, evoking associations, either from some recess in Mahler's memory, or from his earlier works (which is why knowing Mahler's whole output assists appreciation of individual works). Yet this nostalgia is neither cosy, nor comforting. The sharp pizzicatos, dark harp chords and almost jazz-like dissonances are meant to disturb, and the DSO Berlin players do them with whip-like savagery. This is “night music” after all, the stuff of dreams and nightmares. Resolution is not going to come until the blazing end, when the work is complete.
Just as the first and last movements form an infrastructure, the core of the symphony is the scherzo Schattenhaft, literally “shadow-like”. This is no gemütlich Viennese waltz but one which harks back to a much more ancient, and darker, concept of dance as of demonic possession. It reflects the subversive Dionysian aspects of the 3rd Symphony. The strings, of course, take pride of place. Remember Freund’ Hein, the fiddler of death, though death is by no means the only interpretation in this bipolar symphony. Metzmacher lulls us with the gentler aspects of this music, so the eerier depths sound all the more unsettling. Just as in the best horror stories, the scariest bits are those you can’t quite identify at first.
The famous horn dialogues of Nachtmusik 1 exemplify the contrasts that run throughout this symphony. Mahler shifts from major to minor, from upfront, blazing fanfares to shadowy cowbells heard from a distance. Strident trombone calls contrast with intricate trills in the strings. In contrast, the mandolin and guitar of Nachtmusik 2 are embedded in the orchestra, so they arise even more mysteriously into the consciousness, as if from a distance. They function much as the cowbells did before. Metzmacher makes the connection.
Thus the contrast with massed strings. But the simplicity is sympathetically reinforced by a superb solo by the orchestra's Leader (Wei Lu). The humble troubador's music is private, not meant to be heard by the slumbering masses, a "ferne Klang". The first violin, however, makes it clear how important the image is. Then the cellos pick up the concept, their deeper, more sophisticated sounds echoing the mandolin and guitar. The Rondo-finale is magnificent, but Metzmacher and his players understand the crucial human-scale pathos that runs beneath.
And what a finale Metzmacher creates! its fanfares, alarums and crashing percussion drive away the ambiguities of the Nachtmusiks like brilliant sunshine drives away the shadows of the night. Dominant major keys return. The solemn march of the first movement becomes a blitzkrieg stampeding wildly forwards. The deceptive patterns of Rondo repeats seem to contradict the forward flow, until, at the end, the trajectory surges forth again, triumphant.
This final movement is carefully scored with no less than seven ritornellos and several secondary themes. Trumpets, drums and bells normally evoke sounds of triumph, but what is really in this triumph? Not bluster, according to Metzmacher, for his Mahler isn't brutalist. Contradictions again. He keeps control of the intricate architecture even when the music explodes in exuberance. A Messiaen dawn chorus, each bird distinctly clear in the cacophony.
This turbulent, life-enhancing energy is more indicative of Mahler’s personality than conventional wisdom allows. Dionysus, the god Pan, the subversive Lord of Misrule has broken loose again, intoxicated with love of life.
Easily this was the finest Mahler Prom this season, though there hasn't been any real competition. It's probably not a "first Mahler", since it's not superficial and needs a basic understanding of the composer's work as a whole, but there is a lot in it, and it's a genuine contribution to Mahler performance practice.
Metzmacher has long championed "suppressed music", composers banned by the Nazis for various reasons. His approach is important, because he hears the music in its true beauty. My friend and I had come for Franz Schreker's Der ferne Klang – Nachtstück. Wonderfully lustrous performance, the strings particularly luminous. This matters, for Der ferne Klang is a much deeper opera than its plot might suggest. "The Distant Sound" is literally heard from afar as it's played offstage by an invisible musician. It's seductive, ravishing, hypnotic but dangerous, for the composer who hears it sacrifices all.
Although the opera has just been premiered in the US, it's had quite a few performances in recent years in Europe. Indeed, Metzmacher conducted the whole opera earlier this year, please read a review in Die Welt. There is a lot more to Schreker than ultra-late Romantic, the cliché which he's been saddled with. Please see what else I've written about Schreker for example Die Gezeichneten, and Der Geburtstag der Infantin) him, and come back because I'll be doing more, esp on Christophorus.
The Royal Alberrt Hall went wild for Leonidas Kavakos because he's wonderful. He took three bows and did an encore. But I'd come for Korngold's Violin Concerto, and Kavakos exceeded all expectations. He brings out its European intensity, very rigorous, incisive playing. Because Kavakos treats it stringently as the serious music it really is, you appreciate how interesting Korngold really was, behind the surface glamour of Hollywood.