New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conductor Edo de Waart
Mahler: Symphony no.7 in B minor, Op.36
Michael Fowler Centre
Friday, 9 November 2018, 6:30 pm
The concert was one of Edo de Waart’s ‘Masterworks’ series. A mammoth symphony of over 80 minutes in length was obviously not everyone’s cup of tea: the front block of seating downstairs was virtually empty. But it was a tour de force for conductor and orchestra. The huge variety of musical and instrumental content and the diversity of sounds, timbres and musical ideas bore out Mahler’s well-known saying that ‘the symphony is like the world, it must encompass everything!’
It is the only one of his symphonies with which I was not familiar, and of which I have no recording; it is probably the least frequently performed, not only on account of its length. Such a long and complex work takes some getting to grips with. Yet like all the composer’s works, there is much in it to delight as well as much to wonder at and to ponder on. An excellent essay in the printed programme contained interesting and illuminating material.
The orchestra was led by Yuka Eguchi, assistant concertmaster (though this was not shown in the programme), and numbers of guest players were brought in to create the large orchestra required.
With five movements, the symphony is one of the largest in the orchestral repertoire, and is played without an interval, though the breaks between movements must have been welcomed by the orchestra’s members.
A theme for the symphony suggested by the composer (though he made many revisions to it) was ‘darkness to light’. However, each movement has a distinct ‘personality’. The first movement, very long, like the last, is entitled ‘Langsam [slow]– allegro molto ma non troppo’. The opening seemed indecisive, that could not entirely be blamed on Mahler, but the brass soon made their presence felt; next, woodwinds were added, with strings playing at a low pitch, the tones very solemn. Woodwinds take over again, before a general overall shindig breaks out.
More lyrical figures creep in, before the large percussion section has a good workout. The clarinettists play their instruments unusually, holding them up horizontally in front of their faces. The full orchestra plays military motifs, then all is quiet, with a few solo instruments having short statements, and many changes of orchestral colour. The two harps created lovely ripples, and there were dramatic passages with typical Mahlerian harmonies and intervals. The brass contributed numerous expostulations. Everyone was busy; the percussion had their own outbursts, but eventually the music subsided, though soon quickened to a brass march, that illustrated the different tonalities and discordant chords in this symphony compared with the harmonies in Mahler’s earlier ones.
A problem here was the unhelpfulness of the programme in describing the additional brass instrument used. When the player stood for his special bow at the end of the concert, I thought that he had a euphonium. However, Wikipedia says that Mahler did not want that instrument, but describes the instrument variously as tenor horn or baritone horn. The player sat next to the trombones, and in the list of players at the back of the programme he is stated as simply “Brass Nitzan Haroz”. Certainly here was a distinct sound at various points in the symphony. Another failure of description there was in joining the fourth movement guitarist (Jane Curry) and mandolin player (Dylan Lardelli) under the heading ‘Guitar’.
The second movement, like the fourth, is titled ‘Nachtmusik’ (Nocturne). It opens with a horn figure, echoed by a muted horn, then an oboe, before the other musicians gradually enter, including distinctive percussion. A jaunty rhythm has the strings tapping their bows, but soon the contrabassoon makes a noteworthy contribution, and a marching tempo takes over the music; then a smooth theme, like a folk-dance, is played on violins, before one of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs, ‘Revelge’ (or ‘The Dead Drummer’) sounded forth its sad but militaristic tones. We heard the horn echo again. We heard superb, rich, colourful, sonorous playing throughout. The four flutes contributed largely, with lots of delightful little figures for woodwind before a fortissimo passage with spooky elements (as so often with Mahler). The ‘kitchen department’ lived up to its nickname here and elsewhere, with splendid cowbells. Lyrical motifs issued from all sections.
To the Scherzo third movement, Mahler had given the description (in German: Shadowy. Flowing but not too fast. It has a spooky character throughout, but also spiky and perky.. Horn, drums and double basses began proceedings, with many brief utterances from various instruments, notably frequent short solo violin fragments. Likewise, the viola contributed lovely sonorous solo fragments. After some hectic brass, the clarinets contributed to a quirky ending. The ¾ time used in this movement led a commentator to call it ‘a most morbid and sarcastic mockery of the Viennese waltz’ (Wikipedia). Among the unusual instruments employed was the small E-flat clarinet, played by David McGregor. Its distinctive sound was heard quite frequently throughout the symphony.
The fourth movement, another ‘Nachtmusik’, this time andante amoroso throughout, as compared with the varying tempo markings of its predecessor. Brass is absent (except horns), and the use of guitar and mandolin create a serenade atmosphere. A brief violin solo opens the movement, then a charming oboe intervenes, soon allowing the violin to resume. I noticed that in this more intimate movement, Edo de Waart conducted without the baton. Violin, flute, oboe, mandolin and guitar continued the serenade-like character of the music. This movement was in many ways more colourful than the earlier ones. There was always something new happening; some great horn melodies emerged and the movement had a gentle ending.
Now for the powerful Finale – a rondo, that opened with timpani and brass, and great excitement. There is repetition of a main theme from the first movement. A jaunty dotted rhythm makes its appearance, then the woodwind take over, followed by strings – but the brass cannot be suppressed for long. Muted trumpets were most effective. There such a variety of sounds! Tapping the top (wood) of the bass drum was done with a sort of whisk. I learned in Wikipedia that this was a rute.
“The rute… from the German for ‘rod’ or ‘switch’), also known as a multi-rod, is a beater for drums. Commercially made rutes are usually made of a bundle of thin birch dowels or thin canes attached to a drumstick handle… A rute may also be made of a bundle of twigs attached to a drumstick handle. The Rute is used to play on the head of the bass drum.”
Shrill flutes and piccolos contribute to the continuing variety of the movement, as did the high-pitched, sometimes squeaky sound of the E-flat clarinet. A huge musical wake-up ensues, and then subsides. Peals of bells and full brass brings the movement, and the symphony, to an end with grandeur, although a soft passage intervenes, and finally an enormous proclamation, with all players flat out. The climax resulted in great acclamation from the audience.
It is noteworthy that the Dutch premiere of this symphony took place only a year after its initial performance in Prague in 1908. It seems that the Dutch have an affinity with Mahler. Not only is our present conductor a notable interpreter of Mahler, but there are others, including Bernard Haitink. If we didn’t already know that de Waart is a great Mahler conductor, we found out when he conducted Symphony no. 5 in 2016.