Chicago Symphony/Boulez in New York – Mahler 7

Symphony No.7

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 8 December, 2006
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

Following Daniel Barenboim’s recent departure as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony, two of the world’s foremost conductors took up positions with it, starting with the 2006-07 season: Bernard Haitink became the Orchestra’s new principal conductor, and Pierre Boulez, the Principal Guest Conductor since 1995, was named Conductor Emeritus. It was the latter who brought the orchestra to Carnegie Hall for a series of three concerts, beginning with Mahler’s Seventh Symphony.

Ever since its premiere in 1908, it has been the least performed, and quite possibly also least understood of Mahler’s symphonic works. Even someone as close to the composer as Bruno Walter only programmed it once in his life, in Vienna, in March 1920; similarly Otto Klemperer had done it only in 1922 in Cologne before his 1968 London recording with the New Philharmonia.

Befittingly, it was the Chicago Symphony under Frederick Stock, which premiered the work in the United States in 1921, and Willem Mengelberg introduced it to New York in 1923. One can only imagine what effect it must have had on audiences then, since even today it remains a tough nut to crack for many a music lover.

Pierre Boulez certainly made Mahler 7 sound as new, as innovative, and as ‘modern’ as anyone is able to do with a work which is over 100 years old. Rather than dwelling on the emotional content of the work, he chose to stress its avant-garde characteristics. The clarity and transparency of texture were simply breathtaking, as was the virtuosity with which the Chicago Symphony performed. Except for slight interpretative nuances, Boulez followed the composer’s indications to the letter, cleansing the score of some spurious ‘traditions’ which have established themselves over the years. The “Langsam” (Adagio) of the introduction was just that, slow, even very slow, with a pronounced 8 (eighth note) beats to the bar. Paradoxically, this made the next section, which is marked “a little less slow”, sound actually slower, since the pulse was now shifted to 4 (quarter note) beats. It was precisely what Mahler wrote, but shocking to the listener’s ears, as most conductors speed up the pulse rather than the absolute note value.

Boulez is a master of control over tempo, and this skill served him well in structuring especially the large outer movements of this symphony which otherwise can sound incoherently episodic. The two “Nachtmusiken” or Serenades (movements II and IV), and the central scherzo, in contrast are character pieces which were played with a degree of detail one usually only hears on recordings, after the sound engineer has balanced all the instruments. To encounter this live in the concert hall was a rare treat and a credit to both conductor and orchestra.

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