MAHLER: Symphony No. 7 in E Minor “Song of the Night” – Minnesota Orchestra/ Osmo Vanska – BIS Hybrid SACD 2386, 77:30 (6/5/20) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
When I made my initial appearance on WQXR’s syndicated program, “First Hearing” (February 9, 1984), one of the featured selections happened to be an excerpt from the Bernard Haitink performance of Gustav Mahler’s 1904-1905 Symphony No. 7. Among the more elusive of Mahler’s symphonic works, its five arch-form movements arranged in a procedure often deemed “progressive tonality,” the music avoids its proffered key early and wanders into B Minor, ending with a C Major peroration reminiscent of Wagner. Georg Jellinek, producer of the radio program, scheduled the much-discussed Scherzo movement, the so-called Schattenhaft or murky section that for many both recalls the morbid aspects of Berlioz and tends to define the entire work as darkly sinister. And my response didn’t help: I posed the question, “When does one decide to listen to this music; when does it feel appropriate?” To which another guest, conductor Richard Kapp, answered, “When you’re in bed with a fever of about 102, and thoughts of mortality run rampant.”
Gustav Mahler may well have objected: he considered the work his most ambitious, and he labored in the Dolomites in Austria, never quite convinced the diverse orchestration met his demands, revising the symphony virtually up to its Prague premiere in 1908. After the many moods, colors, textures, passing tempests and anxieties expressed in this score, Mahler conceived his triumphant finale as an epiphany of “daylight,” as he expressed it in rehearsals. The second of the Nachtmusik sequences, Andante amoroso, achieves a chamber music effect within the context of a pastoral mediation, a serenade in F Major replete with countryside colors and effects of cowbells and a troubadour’s or gondolier’s mandolin. The direct, pure intimacy of the idyllic moment belies the claim of menace in this music, which some conductors—Webern, Bernstein and Scherchen—have deemed their personal favorite among Mahler’s works.
The first movement, Langsam (Adagio), establishes a nocturnal atmosphere, and Mahler declared the affect to be “a tragic night without stars or moonlight.” The suggestion carries the image of a wanderer’s having lost his physical and moral compass. Embracing the sounds of first the tenor horn (euphonium) and its mournful plaint, the music evolves in the manner of a weird barcarolle, suggestive of the oars Mahler employed on the lake (the Woerthesee) of his summer home, whose rowing tempo provided the impetus for this epic journey of the spirit.
Mahler invoked Rembrandt for the first of two Nachmusik episodes: The Night Watch in particular elicits the feeling of a night patrol, an alert sensibility attuned to shifts—here major and minor in constant tussle—in the cosmic order. A horn solo recalls the first movement and then proceeds to a willful march. The Minnesota strings do not stint on the glissandos that no less make the Bernstein version from New York so memorable. A pity we have no Mitropoulos rendition; and more’s the pity that a Bruno Walter performance from Paris did exist on tape, and the radio people destroyed it in favor of preserving: Eine kleine Nachmusik by Mozart!
Whatever consolations Mahler offers, the heart of the E minor Symphony remains the middle-movement Scherzo, the “shadow” behind the illuminations. Whether an impish evocation of a Walpurgis-Night or some phantasma from E.T.A, Hoffmann and Robert Schumann’s Traumeswirren (from his Op. 12), this music resounds in Mahler’s fascination with the “grotesque and arabesque,” to allude to Poe. Swirling and spectral, the music tests the sonic proficiency of the Minnesota players and their ability to conjure the very winds that assail Francesca and Paolo in Inferno. Even relatively calm Trio section urges vapors of the primal miasma, the immediacy of what Milton calls “Darkness visible.”
The ostensibly jubilant Finale, on the other hand, holds something back, marked Allegro ordinario, breaking the ensemble into small, intimate groups and conversations that will eventually coalesce into festive—if abortive—fanfares rife with allusions to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Full of sound and fury, signifying—parody? A kind of Divine Comedy? Mahler claimed this symphony created “a world.” Arnold Schoenberg believed him, and he announced this music presented “perfect repose based on artistic harmony.” Perhaps, in the higher frequencies, it speaks to us.