Friday, August 26, 2011

Mahler Symphony No. 7 heard as "Song of the Ominous." A New Season in the Digital Concert Hall

The Berlin Philharmonic opened a much anticipated new season in the Digital Concert Hall with an impressive and spirited live performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 7, and hearing a live transmission of this event in the path of a hurricane changes the way one hears the music.

There is controversy as to how to hear the finale of this symphony, and in the program notes attached to the concert website Harald Hodeige summarized the history of a seemingly simple question: is the finale joyous music, or is it a parody of joy?

Like anyone else on the East Coast of the USA, I heard this concert in the path of hurricane Irene. Today it is sunny but tomorrow...We are all feeling rushed and distracted. We feel like the finale of Mahler 7.

The restlessness in this music has never been so apparent to me. Today it sounded like a series of grand celebrations all compressed and rushed with one eye on the window looking south. Maybe the joy/parody model is the wrong framework with which to approach this finale. Maybe instead, like so much of this symphony, it speaks with suppressed anxiety...a sense of the ominous just around the corner.

In this performance, led by Simon Rattle, the finale seemed cut from the same cloth as the four movements that preceded it, and the flow of events seemed not to stop between movements but to continue unabated from where they had left off.

Rattle also shaped the flow of energy within movements with great care. In the development of the first movement, often the place of greatest ferocity in a symphony, Mahler instead scored a dreamscape of colorful sound, framed by marches. Rattle led a series of panoramic textures into a climatic and rich presentation of simultaneous ideas...then sudden silence. Silence in the Berlin Philharmonic can have the edges of an articulated sound.

This opening movement is centered in brass, and the rich sectional horn sound was fabulous throughout but particularly during the recapitulation, and the entire brass section drew the coda to a memorable closing.

...And then it was night.

The three central movements of this symphony group together to explore sounds of the night: two Nachtmusik movement built around a central scherzo marked "Schattenhaft (shadowy)."

The section cellos produced an expressive sound during the first Nachtmusik when that Schubertian dance music broke forth in A-flat major, and the midnight tango, first articulated by oboes, and later cellos in thirds was magical. The syncopations and broken grinding of the scherzo were given with a sense of distortion and humor. Rattle took a quick tempo during the second Nachtmusik which made it seem a culmination of the set of three dark moods.

Mahler's seventh symphony has sometimes been called "The Song of the Night." Heard as such the finale stands apart as contradiction or parody. Is the seventh instead a Song of the Ominous?

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