Mahler 7/Salonen

Symphony No.7

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 21 November, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Following a wide-ranging European tour to celebrate its 60th-birthday, Esa-Pekka Salonen brought the Philharmonia Orchestra back to its temporary London home for a performance of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. He pulled out of the hat a performance of both incidental detail and incident.

The latter included the disappearance of euphonium-player Byron Fulcher after the first movement and his important solos, only returning for the curtain call, and the discreet appearance of guitarist Forbes Henderson and Nigel Woodhouse on mandolin just before their contributions to the penultimate (fourth) movement, although they had the good grace to sit in on the final movement! Just as in Christoph von Dohnányi’s opening concert of the season, Salonen – conducting without baton – at one point caught the principal cellist’s stand (here on the left in ‘now-traditional’ formation), although he was luckier than Dohnányi in that none of the music fell off. Best of all was a moment of pure comedy in the final movement, when the beater bizarrely used for the cowbells was struck so hard that its plastic ball shattered and flew off. More about the cowbells later.

The incidental detail emerged in every movement, proving unfounded any fears that the Queen Elizabeth Hall would be too-small-a-space for Mahler’s massive scoring. Indeed the very acoustic – and the deep layout of the orchestra – seemed to subtly uncover more of the score than usually heard and, given the five performances over the last three weeks across Europe, there was a satisfying feeling that this was a fully rounded rendition, more so than the two other times I’ve heard him conduct the work (Royal Festival Hall, with the Philharmonia, 17 March 1986, and Royal Albert Hall, 6 August 1990, with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Proms).

The opening movement, with its rhythm inspired by oars sculling through water on an Austrian lake, veered from austere to rapt, while the ‘Castrol GTX advert’-ländler second-movement, only marred momentarily by one of the very few infelicities in the performance, had a secure sense of architecture that could melt as easily as steel itself for more strident passages. The shadowy central scherzo was finely essayed, suddenly becoming clearer structurally with Salonen making clear its recapitulation, pointing out its status as fulcrum in this almost-symmetrical structure (eventually perfected in the Tenth Symphony).

The second ‘Night Music’, including the very nicely balanced guitar and mandolin, was again made crystal-clear, and even the tub-thumping timpani opening to the much-misunderstood finale was not as overwhelming as might have been expected. There are those who are puzzled by one of the very few totally-positive movements, with no extended reaches of introspection, that Mahler ever wrote, and yet here its comedic value (yes, enhanced by the cowbell-beater explosion at the end), with all its rough and tumble – for all the world as bubbly as guest-leader Bradley Creswick – seeming perfectly at ease with Salonen’s well-paced trajectory.

But, the only thing wrong was those cowbells. I remember Salonen’s RFH performance where he had the off-stage player in the second movement walk along the corridor behind the boxes with the cowbells strung on a rod over his back. In the QEH, those offstage were rather rigid; those onstage were beaten with normal beaters.

Does Finland not have cows? I can well imagine Los Angeles doesn’t, but surely no-one can think that cows clunk their bells one at a time. I’m reminded of sneaking into a Tennstedt rehearsal for the last concerts he ever gave in London, in 1993, of this very work. I overheard him wanting the cowbells shaken more vehemently, and to explain he imitated a cow shaking its head (so good was the reaction, he did his impersonation again). Salonen’s way, and both that of Alan Gilbert and Sinopoli before him, of having them struck makes no sense at all. Perhaps he should take the beater’s splintering as a sign.

But, cowbells aside, this was a richly rewarding performance that vividly brought a relatively rare work to life.

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