If the increasing frequency of performances of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is any indication, this too-often-maligned work – discombobulated, convoluted and unduly diffuse, say its critics – may have achieved at last a more positive acceptance. It would seem that those who hold on to a negative opinion focus on the allegedly bombastic and certainly confusing Finale, with its many twists and turns, sudden shifts of mood and false or incomplete cadences. What is often missed in critical analyses of the Seventh are the unusually frequent examples of Mahler’s humor, including puns on the music of other composers as well as his own.
With this account Mariss Jansons has solved the problem of the Seventh, rendering its remarkable wealth of material cogently and cohesively – with spirit, enthusiasm and good fun. From the opening that begins with a tenor horn solo (brilliantly played by Hansjörg Profanter), Jansons established just the right pace for this pseudo-funeral march. The three subdivisions of the introduction were fashioned so that the tempo gradually increased until the exposition begins with its strident march. Jansons held back ever so slightly for the second theme, making its Viennese character sound all the more charming. He gave the passionate third subject a serenade-like quality, anticipating ‘Nachtmusik II’ (fourth movement). Most importantly, Jansons negotiated Mahler’s many diversions, especially during the development, with skillfulness. Throughout this sprawling movement, the energy and intensity he drew from the music never waned.
‘Nachtmusik I’, with its concentration on and sometimes confusion of two typical Mahlerian subjects, the march and the waltz, was given with a marked emphasis on its tongue-in-cheek wit (sometimes the march is played in waltz-time). Details and inner voices too often buried were audible, particularly the cowbells, played in segmented trills. The Scherzo, the center of this five-movement Symphony, combines a string of triplets given a spooky character by frequent swells placed in different parts of the bar with a jaunty waltz (another of Mahler’s quips). Jansons held the pace back a bit for the Trio and smoothed over the sudden brief interrupts of flippant figuration marked più mosso (much faster), undercutting the comedic effect of their unwanted intrusions. After the music glides frivolously into the reprise of the Scherzo, the low strings play a pizzicato B-flat marked fffff, which Mahler directs be played so that the string bounces off the fingerboard. After a one-bar rest another pizzicato note is sounded, now marked fff. Although Mahler does not apply the same instruction for that succeeding note, it has become virtually a tradition to play both off the fingerboard, as was done here. Such an exaggeration in dynamics is another of Mahler’s witticisms. There has been controversy over the tempo of ‘Nachtmusik II’, marked Andante amoroso. Some conductors play up the flippant character by taking a brisk tempo, while others concentrate on its serenade character (including guitar and mandolin) at a slower pace. Jansons offered a perfect compromise, playful and romantic.
With the Finale Jansons turned its marking, Allegro ordinario, into a wisecrack of its own, an animated pace combined with enthusiastic playing made the movement spill-over with frolicsome vivacity. The mimetic treatment of Wagner’s Meistersinger march, the devilishly coy speeding up for the waltz from Lehár’s The Merry Widow, and other such spoofs, made for a fun-filled experience. Jansons did not linger over the several false or incomplete cadences, pressing forward and heightening the tension until the declamatory conclusion, the Symphony ending with a stroke. Jansons pulled no punches in this major success of a performance, the BRSO an equal partner.