Mahler 7 at the Proms

*For an introduction to my whole series on Mahler, with links, click here!*

Mahler 1908
Mahler (left) with Bruno Walter, Prague 1908.
Source: Mahler, Year 1908, with many more images.

As a self-confessed Mahler fanatic, I’ve always been somewhat underwhelmed by the 7th symphony (see e.g. here, and wiki)—and it transpires I’m not alone. I’ve finally got to know it better with the prospect of hearing the stellar lineup of Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Phil performing it live at the Proms (listen here).

Prom BPO

Mahler wrote the symphony in 1904–05, premiering it in Prague in 1908, over which period his family and professional problems had taken a serious turn for the worse.

Here’s a rather impressive review of the British premiere in 1913, led by Henry Wood—I like

It looked as if the audience had derived some pleasure from the performance, though they felt not sure whether they were right in enjoying it. [cf. Woody Allen’s “wrong kind of orgasm”.]

The opening movement is most substantial, after the opening melody on Tenorhorn with its unsettling tritone. Of course, Mahler thrives on extreme contrasts, but somehow I still find the symphony too disjointed; the collage sometimes reminds me of Ives. More intimate sections are all too fleeting, like that building from the bucolic passage (from 9.11 in Abbado’s performance below) and near the ending (from 17.01), before the climax of the coda—which I also find rather a challenge.

Between the more grandiose outer movements, the two pieces of nachtmusik are themselves punctuated by a spooky scherzo, foreshadowing Ravel’s La valse (“a surreal nightmarish vision of a decaying society through a broken kaleidoscope”)—and featuring an fffff pizzicato in the cellos and basses!

The first nachtmusik is “grotesque, with friendly intentions”, according to wiki; the second, andante amoroso, is more intimate and human, with a transcendent ending—before the blazing, brash finale, which Michael Kennedy described as “a vigorous life-asserting pageant of Mahlerian blatancy”. Without Mahler’s typical extended passages of intense soul-searching, the final victory doesn’t seem sufficiently hard-won.

In this symphony the kitsch that is such a distinctive, poignant part of Mahler’s sound world rarely moves me. Even his use of cowbells doesn’t add up to much after the transcendental (if ambivalent) mood they impart in the 6th symphony. Mahler’s palette also makes use of guitar and mandolin—another suitable outlet for the Music Minus One franchise?

My struggle with the 7th may be partly to do with my personal history of getting to know the symphonies, but critics have long pondered its flaws; even if it has some impressive defenders, it it is famously difficult to make cohere.

As to recordings (see e.g. here and here, as well as Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler? pp.267–8), I’ve chosen some outstanding live performances. Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra always make an exceptional team—here they are in 2005:

Of course, that’s rivalled by earlier performances—like Bernstein with the unrepentantly all-male Vienna Phil in 1974:

This 1993 concert by Tennstedt and the London Phil was his last recording:

and here’s S-Simon Rattle with the Berlin Phil in 1999:

Back at the Proms, the Berlin Phil sounded fabulous (for the orchestra’s early history, click here, and here). But even hearing it live, much as I relish the building blocks, I must admit I still don’t really get the piece—it feels as if the pieces of the jigsaw don’t quite fit together. Still, it’s Mahler, and the standing ovation was richly deserved (see this rave review).

This season also features the 1st and 4th symphonies—as well as S-Simon conducting the 2nd, the event of the season. I will always enjoy hearing the 7th live, but it’s also a reminder to immerse ourselves in the miracles of the 2nd and 3rd, the 9th and 10th, the 5th and 6th, the 1st and 4th, as well as Das Lied von der Erde

2 thoughts on “Mahler 7 at the Proms

  1. Wonderful language in Henry Wood’s review, especially the tenor horn passage and this: “But what are cow bells to these spirits of the past, and what are they to cow bells.” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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