Mahler Symphony No.7 - Song of the Night

Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Adelaide Festival Theatre. 11 Aug 2012

Richard Chew, noted Adelaide based musicologist and composer, said at the after-concert ‘classical conversation’ with Maestro Arvo Volmer that this performance of Mahler’s 7th Symphony allowed him to finally ‘make sense’ of the composition.  I found this to be an interesting remark on a number of levels.  What does it actually mean for a musical work to ‘make sense’?  Was there something special about tonight’s performance?  Why is it that this particular symphony is ‘less accessible’ or ‘problematic’ than many (all?) of Mahler’s others?

I am passionate about Mahler, but for many years I have never really ‘gotten into’ the seventh.  My relative indifference to it hasn’t been substantially altered by listening to a range of recordings either.  I find this curious because interpretations of Mahler can vary in quite radical ways, especially in tempo and in dynamics, and I thought I might have found a recording of it somewhere that changed my mind.  But no.  I generally admire Simon Rattle’s freshness, and George Solti’s moody deliberateness.  I enjoy Klaus Tennstedt’s tempi and Bernstein’s brashness and attempts to discover something new.  But the seventh doesn’t rock my boat.  It’s not the mighty sixth, or the sublime fourth, or the uplifting Das Liede von der Erde (which the ASO triumphed a fortnight ago).  The seventh doesn’t seem to have an easy narrative, even though it is programmatic and Mahler himself has explained its raison d’être in his own writings.  It’s in five movements and they do not easily relate to each other.  They could stand as independent works in their own right.  The seventh just doesn’t do it for me.

But then tonight happened and everything changed.

As usual, for a Mahlerian symphony, the stage was full to overflowing with a large orchestra.  As the show begun the audience stifled last minute winter sneezes and coughs, Arvo Volmer assumed the conductor’s podium, drew breath, and commanded the ASO to erupt into full voice for its first ever performance of Mahler’s “Song of the Earth” symphony. Volmer demanded strength and volume in the first movement to draw out the powerful and thrusting march rhythms.  I felt it was overpowered – it was a different approach to Tennstedt, my favourite – but it demanded my attention. 

Glorious horns herald a ‘night music’ second movement and this is followed by a relatively shorter scherzo third movement that features a twisted and strained waltz theme (in which I heard hints of Lloyd Webber’s ‘Love Never Dies’ no less!).  This leads into a second ‘night music’ movement and the orchestration includes double harp and guitar. (Where did the ASO get the guitarist from? I thought they were all rather occupied with the Guitar Festival that is currently in town!).  But all of this was a lead up to the mighty fifth and final movement, which is an unbridled celebration of the promise that a new day offers.  It was bold and brash and edge of your seat stuff;  and with the final abrupt diminuendo which is instantly followed by an almighty tutti crash, the audience burst into thunderous applause which lasted for a full ten minutes. 

After accepting the audience’s praise and appreciation, and acknowledging every section of the exhausted orchestra, a spent Volmer took concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto by the hand and led her off stage, signalling to all that Mahler had, had his pound of flesh and it was time for us to drift off into the night.

Unlike Chew, I don’t know whether I understand the work any better, but this live performance has heightened my appreciation of it - and isn’t that what concerts are all about?  So much more satisfying than listening to a recording at home.

Kym Clayton