in: Reviews

April 30, 2012

Mahler’s Problem Child from Boston Philharmonic


Mahler’s Seventh Symphony has troubled audiences and critics from its first performance in Prague in 1908. It is often called “Song of the Night,” a title Mahler did not approve. However, the second and fourth movements are labelled Nachtmusik, the Scherzo third movement is labelled Schattenhaft (shadowy or spectral), and Mahler himself described the final fifth movement as depicting “broad daylight.” He completed the initial sketch of the work in 1905 but continued working on it up to and after the 1908 premiere. In between, he had been forced to resign from the Vienna State Opera, his first daughter had died, and he learned that he had an incurable heart problem. It is plausible to think that these factors contributed to the darkening of the mood in his revisions to the symphony. It’s a piece that was long neglected, revived in part due to Bernstein’s attention to Mahler and in particular his dramatic performances of this symphony in the ‘60s. Even Mahler’s protégé and leading exponent, Bruno Walter, declined to perform it, saying that he wanted to present only Mahler’s strongest works to the public. Yet this is the symphony that finally converted Schoenberg to Mahler: “I am now really and entirely yours,” he wrote.

The Seventh is a vast and complex work, typically lasting about 80 minutes. Yesterday’s performance at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre took 78 and was the only piece on the program. It consists of five movements: the first marked allegro risoluto, in sonata form with a slow (Langsam) introduction; next is the first Nachtmusik movement, perhaps picturing a walk at dusk, ending with cowbells and nightfall; the third movement is (usually, but see below) a gloomy and even morbid scherzo, literally the dark center of the symphony; next is the second Nachtmusik, marked andante amoroso, using reduced winds and brass and with serenading guitar and mandolin; the last movement is a riotous introductory rondo leading to the finale, marked by enthusiastic timpani and filled with satirical references, especially to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, ending with a wildly exuberant finish. The finale seemed to many to be excessive and almost ridiculous, although Bernstein noted that it should be viewed as a “document on the end of the great European tradition”: Vienna in those days may have had  its waltzes and schlag, but it also had Freud, Mach, Brentano, Klimt, Kokoschka — and the young Gropius. In his pre-concert talk, conductor Benjamin Zander promised finally to solve the problem of the last movement and, as it turned out, he delivered.

Mahler puts his oars in the water (his words) with a soft tutti followed by a plaintive but resolute call from the B-flat tenor horn; a baritone horn, softer and with less of an edge, is often employed instead. (There is much confusion and controversy, to this day, over exactly what instrument Mahler meant.)  A tenor tuba was used at this concert, with Nic Orovich performing admirably. The high point of the movement was a wonderfully transcendent moment at the end of the development, leading to the recapitulation. The time flew by and the movement did not seem to last 20-plus minutes.

The three middle movements taken together produced a Faustian atmosphere, a closeness to the world of spirits, seductive and dangerous. The first Nachtmusik movement here had the feeling of an evening stroll, with occasional glimpses of music and dancing enticingly seen through passing windows. The scherzo emphasized the dance-like aspects, downplaying the creepiness one usually hears, except for the nicely ominous tympani playing of Edward Meltzer. The second Nachtmusik movement featured the lovely serenade with guitar and mandolin, played here by Stefan Koim and Sue Faux, respectively. The effect that Mahler wanted seems nearly impossible to achieve in a live concert hall performance, but they were heard rather well and to good effect in this one.

The last movement is what made this performance memorable. The references to Die Meistersinger  certainly offer a clue to the meaning, in that it features a critic who is vilified for trying to stifle the great artist’s impulses of the heart. Bernstein’s interpretation argues that artistic imagination is fine, but that there is also much of value in the traditional, and that it too can lead to great art. Zander went further. Rather than the all-out emotion of Bernstein’s reading, this one had the humor tempered by irony, restraint and wit, and brought to mind — of all things — Mozart, both of Cherubino being sent off to war and of the “Jupiter”: not directly, of course, but in the sense that one cannot imagine Mozart being happy to represent the immortal German soul. This finale was a vindication of the Enlightenment, answering the (anti-Semitic) German nationalists by showing the danger in following one’s spirit while denigrating critical thinking. (Bernstein’s Candide relates to Mozart and the Enlightenment in exactly the same way.) The return of the main theme from the first movement would seem to indicate Mahler placing himself squarely in the midst of this alternative, universalist tradition. It was a fine solution to the problem, as good as any I’ve heard.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.


  1. * 5th movement: your elaboration of Zander’s solution is very interesting, since the critic vilified by Wagner in Meistersinger,  Beckmesser, whose “voice” Mahler invokes in the 5th movement, may have perhaps been a reference to Eduard Hanslick, about whom Wagner wrote that “his Jewish style of criticism was anti-German.” Hanslick had personally supported Mahler’s candidacy as director of the Vienna Court Opera. So perhaps Mahler’s affirmative joy in the 5th movement is subtly vindicating Hanslick for his defense of a lineage from Brahms back to Mozart ?

    Comment by Ashley — April 30, 2012 at 4:51 pm

  2. I must have some special/great music talent, because it did not take me long to be convinced that Mahler 7th is his best symphonies, or one of the better if you will. Bruno Walter did not realize the merit of the work. LOL

    I am not very fond of Mahler. I can’t believe that I made the decision to skip Beethoven 6th.  Sanders Theatre is closer to home and I need to go home early on Thursday evening. Zander’s long pre-concert talk spoiled my plan.

    I never find those pre talks necessary. “the first theme sounds like this, that second theme sounds like that… the 2nd movement is a night music…” I don’t think I am intelligent enough to absorb(?) a symphony that lasts for more than an hour for the first time. Apparently many audience members think they are, regardless the ‘unpopularity’ of the symphony. Zander’s talk would not help. It was full of wit though. The experiment of playing ‘tenorhorn’ in other instruments was interesting. But I knew what sound color I was looking for. Claudio Abbado’s Mahler 7 is his worst Mahler. One of the reasons is that the tenorhorn in his DVD does not have the right color. It should be dark(obviously), sensitive(if all conductors are sensitive enough …) and vulnerable (I am not stereotyping Mahler. Just listen to the coda of the 1st movement, if you understand Brahms 4th). Imagine a caveman let a string of light in for the first time for a long long time…

    I also can’t believe it was my second Mahler 7 in Boston, in 2 years. I was never satisfied with any Mahler 7 recording I listened to. But live concerts made me feel better. Maybe the newer generation of conductors (Zander … ?) learned how to conduct Mahler 7 and finally they converge to a sensible common practice. In the talk, Zander mentioned the tempo. Kubelik finished the symphony within 80 minutes, and Klemperer stretched it to 100 minutes (must be horrible, I could not even stand Sinopoli the dragging pace…) Zander chose the right direction. Everything was coherent in the first movement. The brass section was very nice. But the woodwind and strings were weak. I think I was more moved by the BSO performance 2 years ago.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — May 1, 2012 at 6:05 pm

  3. *** I was never satisfied with any Mahler 7 recording I listened to.

    Mahler 7 is a strange work. Indeed, I can’t recall any Mahler 7 recordings that I appreciate. The whole work is kind of amorphous and in my view has no definite way to be “right” or even interesting.  The Scherzo is more or less OK but Mahler had expressed all of it in the Scherzo of the 6th symphony.   I was attending the concert on Saturday and one more time reminded myself that the 7th is not something that I would look forward to hear next time. I do not find that everything was coherent in the first movement, neither brass was acceptable, at least on Saturday. The BPO played remarkably in compliance with their typical playing style – with envious enthusiasm but technically amateurish and lovingly- limpy.


    Comment by Romy The Cat — May 2, 2012 at 12:54 am

  4. Yes, but Thorsten, Romy: how did you interpret Zander’s solution to the 5th movement and what did you think of it? I ask because I really do find this last movement problematic and have been impressed by the sheer variety of interpretations. Bernstein makes it into a sort of Vienese bacchanale, as “congested and bombastic” (Bartok’s assessment, I think) as the inside of the Karlskirche where Mahler was married. I can’t find another conductor who chose, as Zander did, to make restraint the key. This is what allowed a sort of “let’s defend the Enlightenment” spirit to emerge — which, in turn, sent me scurrying to explore the Beckmesser allusions. Any help on collecting perspectives on this 5th movement is welcome..

    Comment by Ashley — May 2, 2012 at 7:58 am

  5. From Alma Mahler, “Gustav Mahler: Memories and Reflections,” tr. Basil Creighton, ed. Donald Mitchell (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1971):

    “Boston itself was dull and sedate compared with other American towns. Here too we lived in isolation for the few days we were there. We had only one invitation. Mrs. Gardner (the great collector of American works of art) asked us to a luncheon-party at her house, and we were eager to pay a visit to her palatial museum. Unfortunately we failed to find the entrance. The building resembled a gigantic cistern without windows or doors. We got out of our automobile and made the complete circuit of the house, but found neither door nor bell. So we left it at that and drove back to our hotel, glad to be alone to do what we pleased. Alone or in company we were always in any case enclosed within a vacuum.”

    Comment by Richard Buell — May 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm

  6. Ashley, I am thankful to be called to speak. I did not quite get what the reviewer tried to say.

    “Bernstein’s interpretation argues that artistic imagination is fine, but that there is also much of value in the traditional, and that it too can lead to great art.”
    “the all-out emotion of Bernstein’s reading”
    Does the ‘all-out emotion’ Bernstein style represent the tradition (of what?)? My not-so-high opinions on Bernstein probably won’t lead to a pleasant conversation. A good music review tells the reader what the conductor did clearly on purpose and depict its effect on audience’s listening experience. When ‘irony’ is talked about, it seems to be only out of Zander’s mouth. He mentioned the ‘music joke’ in the 5th movement in the pre talk. But we are not audience in Haydn’s era. One may not see that as a music joke at all. The question is what did he do to make it sound like a joke. It is more like a joke when I read “Mozart being happy” (sorry for being picky on words).

    I am not afraid to reveal my simplitic and perhaps naive view, because I’d rather not read too much into the performance. If I may, I’d ask what Zander did made ‘Beckmesser’ or this ‘anti-smeitic’ stuff so vivid that it became a  more interesting a solution? Falling back on my own instinct, I have to say I did not think much about the Meistersinger when I listened to M7 for the first a few times. I say the 5th movement is all (ok, more than half) about ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’ theme, which is repeated over and over again and frames the movement. The variations are more interesting (otherwise it is Schubert’s 9th), only in that framework. Fortunately, people know this theme, know how it should sound and that is why the performing time of this movement from different conductors varies very little, given its length. Mendelssohn did similar thing in his 3rd symphony, ending it with a German religious theme. And he did it again in his 5th symphony, quoting the exact same theme there. Mahler must have been familiar with all that. Regardless the Meistersing thing, Bernstein, as almost always, don’t understand much about emotion. Is he the real ‘Beckmesser’? I don’t think it is fair to use him as a reference.

    Other than the weak string and woodwind, I do complain about the tubular bell being too close to the audience.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — May 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm

  7. *The symphony is extraordinarily difficult to play and may be the only one (of the nine, not ten) in which one actually notices, and is a little distracted by the BPO’s not being a major orchestra.  A lot of the playing was pretty scruffy, but sometimes not sufficiently so in places Mahler wanted it to be.  The one performer who was, clearly, of major orchestra calibre was timpanist Edward Meltzer who, doubtless encouraged by Zander, executed the part with more swagger and panache than did his counterpart in the BSO two years ago.  All that said, I actually agree with the reviewer that the problems of the repetitive and diffuse finale were “solved”  by emphasizing the sectional aspects and defining (even exaggerating) the disparate musical characters.  This may have been the most convincing Mahler 7th finale I’ve ever heard.  One could tell this movement had been the most thoroughly rehearsed of the five.  The rest, especially the first movement, tended to be UNdifferentiated, especially in dynamics, which were seldom soft enough in crucial places.  The expressive moments seemed oddly unyielding, even hard.  I’ve never heard the first movement’s tenor horn solo played so…, well, unremittingly loud!  I could not hear the “vulnerability” Zander spoke of in the pre-concert lecture.  In all a very uneven performance–not as good as the one I remember the BPO giving in the 90’s, but one I wouldn’t have missed for anything!  

    Comment by Dan Farber — May 3, 2012 at 8:03 pm

  8. * Two comments on my reviewing style: 1. I tend to emphasize the things that I like, and generally discuss only the negative things that really can’t be ignored; 2. My focus is on how the performance affected me, with less interest in how it was done. Of course, there are other styles of reviewing, and nobody will be able to satisfy everyone in the BMInt audience, but I think that having a variety of approaches makes this site more interesting.

    Comment by Leon Golub — May 4, 2012 at 9:30 am

  9. *If I may, I’d ask what Zander did made ‘Beckmesser’ or this
    ‘anti-semitic’ stuff so vivid that it became a  more interesting a

    Fair question. My sense, that he used restraint, is nicely explicated by Dan Farber,  namely that Zander “emphasized the sectional aspects and defined, even exaggerated, the disparate musical characters.” This gave a feeling of joy, yes – but a joy that delights in articulation, in critical  reason.

    Comment by Ashley — May 5, 2012 at 8:04 am

  10. The fact (or the moment I heard the strings and realized ) that ‘BPO’s not being a major orchestra‘ immediately turned my all my expectation for those ‘expressive‘ moments. It was fair to look for his tempo choices and sectional balance, rather than the playing quality and details. I have heard a lot weird, unreasonable and boring stuff from the CDs. Zander did not have those annoying moments in the first movements. (Neither did the BSO 2 yrs ago). So I was pleased and not moved. But my SNR for receiving music usually drops 20dB in live concerts…

    The lost 20dB makes me more naive and insensitive. At least Zander seemed to be more consistent. I could not understand why people like ‘disparate musical characters‘ and then complain about the tenorhorn being too distinct (I did not say I liked it).

    Ashley, I have yet to hear any version that is just ‘the all-out emotion‘ without those musical characters. I don’t have Bernstein’s NYPO CD. But it says its rondo lasts for 18.5 mins, which is perhaps on the right hand side of the mean duration of all different versions. The film, which I watched before, made with WPO 10 yrs earlier has an even more restraint finale. Not only does it last for 19+mins, it never sounded like full of emotion (NYPO recording may be so). No matter who was the conductor, I could clearly hear the jewish melody, the converted jewish melody and the vienese melody. I know whom the brash fanfare was referring to (for one moment). To ‘offer a clue to the meaning‘, why everyone keeps talking about only Die Meistersinger? How about Grieg’s Sigurd Jorsalfar? I don’t read much, but have never seen it mentioned anywhere. Please listen to the opening and Northland Folk. Is it one of the many Mahler music sources? make your own judgment.

    Last words. If Zander truly wanted to just ‘emphasize the sectional aspect‘, that is absolutely wrong. Poor chefs just mix the ingredients together. Good chefs does not totally the opposite. They blend the ingredients and highlight the flavor.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — May 7, 2012 at 4:10 pm

  11. My Mahler 7 DVD by Haitink arrived today.

    too much attention on him. I feel guilty.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — May 12, 2012 at 8:57 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.