Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).
Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra continue to show their mettle with Mahler in their sixth symphonic release, of the odd and difficult symphony that musician, musicologist and Mahler expert Deryck Cooke christened the “Mad” (actually repeating "mad" four times to describe it!). Prior releases on BIS have included Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6, and have shown Vänskä to be willing to take some chances in handling these works – with greater success in some instances than in others. Each Mahler symphony presents its own challenges, but those of the Seventh have derailed a number of conductors. The work is puzzling in many ways: for example, although officially labeled as being in E minor, it neither starts nor ends in that key, opening in B minor and concluding in C major. It is a symphony of many moods and many small pieces, a difficult work to make cohesive – and Vänskä does not really try, preferring to highlight its many individual elements with great care and leave it to listeners to assemble them into a coherent whole.
Structurally, Mahler’s Seventh looks both back and forward. Like the Fifth, it is built around its central movement, a fact that Mahler emphasized in No. 5 by stating that that work is in three parts: movements 1 and 2, the large-scale movement 3 alone, and movements 4 and 5. In the Seventh, he surrounds the central movement with two designated Nachtmusik, preceding the first of those with the very dark opening movement and concluding the entire work with a bright Rondo-Finale, the same form used to complete the Fifth. In the Seventh, though, the central movement is the shortest of the five, and in this way the symphony anticipates the unfinished Tenth, whose very short central Purgatorio movement is the linchpin of the entire work. Thus, the Fifth, Seventh and Tenth all have structures that are essentially arc-like. Emotionally, the progress of the Seventh is actually straightforward: it moves from darkness to light, as do many 19th-century symphonies. But Mahler’s finale here can seem too bright, too straightforward, and thus can be a puzzlement to conductors and audiences alike.
Vänskä has a good sense of the way the symphony progresses. The first movement is funereal and intense at the start, barely dragging itself out of silence as it ebbs and flows. The opening rhythm, which Mahler thought of while listening to oars striking the water as he traveled on a lake, here suggests a watery crossing much disturbed – certainly nothing tranquil. The brass is especially fine in this movement as the themes fracture and fragment – the dark feeling here is episodic rather than concentrated, as it is in Symphony No. 6. Halfway through, Vänskä has the movement subside into a kind of stasis before it regains some forward momentum that eventually brings it to an end.
The second movement and first Nachtmusik starts with more than the usual feeling of eeriness, with impressive sound as major slides into minor – another technique employed differently here from the way it is used in the Sixth. Here the lower strings are especially trenchant, and the movement has a strong chamber-music feeling as individual instruments slip in and out of prominence. As a result, the beautiful legato string theme comes across as more of a relief and contrast than usual. This is a night of strange, disconnected sounds, not exactly frightening but certainly not restful.
The third movement is designated by Mahler as Scherzo. Schattenhaft – the “shadowy” feeling intended to take the impression of the previous movement further. Mahler states that the speed of this movement should be “fluent but not too fast.” As always, his directions clearly show his expertise as a conductor as well as his concerns as a composer. Here there is strangeness beyond that of the prior movement: Vänskä handles the third as a demonic dance, really impish, giving it a type of ebb and flow quite different from that in the first movement. The movement hesitates time and again, the prominent dissonances with brass being highlighted. There is a kind of clockwork feeling in the rhythms, as wind exclamations that sound like squeals add to the overall strangeness. At the end, the music simply dissipates.
Again in the fourth movement, Mahler’s tempo indication is crucial: it is, simply, Andante amoroso. And it is here, in the second Nachtmusik, that the veil of darkness begins to lift. The horn calls here are somewhat reminiscent of those in Symphony No. 3, while the sweetness of the violin solo accentuates the brightness that is still to come. In Vänskä’s reading, the symphony by this time has come to seem rather dissociative, a collection of small parts thrown together – or large thoughts broken down into small components. It is not so much directionless as it is trying to go in multiple directions, never finding one that is quite satisfactory until the finale.
And when the finale arrives, it does so in the most straightforward way possible – which Mahler fully realized, providing the highly unusual tempo indication of Allegro ordinario. The composer knew exactly what he was doing here, even if conductors and audiences sometimes find the movement disconcertingly out of keeping with Mahler’s other music. It is different in some ways, but not in others: for example, it again uses the major-minor contrast so crucial to Symphony No. 6. Yet the brass proclamation after the timpani open the movement is the first straightforward thing in this whole symphony – even more so in Vänskä’s performance, where the drumbeats are intensely emphasized. The rondo form, here and in the Fifth, is a straightforward one by Mahler’s large-scale standards. And surely this is an unusually bright movement, featuring triangle, cymbals and bells. Indeed, Mahler is more insistent here than in the Fifth of staying within what is basically a rigid form, as if to cement the symphony in brightness after allowing so much of it to drift, not quite aimlessly, in the dark. There are still exclamatory passages in this movement, and tempo variations, but now within a more-approachable, more readily comprehensible whole. In other words, the movement, like much that has come before in this symphony, is episodic – but within a structure that admits of an episodic approach and fits it into a clear totality. Vänskä handles the finale quite well, building it to a highly effective summation and ending.
There is indeed some justification for Cooke’s “Mad” designation of Mahler’s Seventh, given the fragmented nature of so much of the material. But a better title, especially when it comes to a performance such as Vänskä’s, might be the “Disjointed.”
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