Music Director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Edo de Waart conducted the NZSO in Gustav Mahler’s least performed symphony, Symphony No.7 last night in the Auckland Town Hall. Although I don’t know this work well, I welcomed the opportunity to engage with Mahler’s ‘most enigmatic’ work and found an intriguing pull between night and day, contentment and agitation.
Mahler does not hand out conclusions instead there are sweeps, flurries and restlessness.
The piece begins with an unusual instrument for a symphonic orchestra, the tenor horn which has a dark liquid quality unlike any other brass sound. This sonorous dark legato leads the way into the first movement Langsam which takes a moment to shake into life. Once the rather strange themes are introduced, moments of tenderness with the plaintive oboe, wind section and warm strings appear. But, characteristic of this work, the shadows creep in... the timpani rumbles and the brass brings in undercurrents. Moments of sunshine appear with harp shimmers and long arching sentences which break with darkness. The finale builds to a unified crescendo with exciting brass, accented strings and an almost warlike snare drum. Wow, after just the first movement you feel like you’ve had a full orchestral meal!
The second movement opens with the french horn that seemed to herald a momentous event. But it remained a mystery... Mahler does not hand out conclusions instead there are sweeps, flurries and restlessness. This is titled Nachtmusik or night music and is a much more intimate arena for the orchestra. The beauty is in the details with fine playing from oboe and flute while the strings stir up a sense of obscurity. One of the best surprises of this symphony is that we hear remarkable individual playing as well as the full might of the 100-strong orchestra.
... this restless symphony has all the conflicts and joys of what he [Mahler] himself struggled with, the ‘agony of existence’.
By the third movement the ‘spooky’ Scherzo, I was riding the wave of the orchestral ocean. It was a big ride, Mahler is astonishing in his mastery of orchestral instrumentation. Even if one doesn’t have the enjoyable story-telling of Mahler’s other symphonies, this 'restless' symphony has all the conflicts and joys of what he himself struggled with, the ‘agony of existence’. The composer was born into a family of German-speaking Jews in Moravia to a humble family and struggled throughout his life to claim a space for himself. Perhaps this beginning of not fitting in and striving for a place, fired his writing with a particular sense of yearning and struggle. The German word ‘sehnsucht’ describes this state so well.
In the fourth movement, we visit a different version of Nachtmusik with some shades of earlier Mahler, and for the first time we hear mandolin and guitar (slightly marred by their position beneath the balcony) and a cheeky appearance of cow bells clattering eccentrically. There were some other 'unusual' duet partners such as strings and timpani... even a brief shiny moment for a viola solo. Who else but Mahler could deftly add such sounds as if there was no other possible way? And more great woodwind playing adding to the sheer beauty of Mahler’s aching warmth.
So we were swept into the Finale with a rousing forte roll of timpani and blast of brass... here was Mighty Mahler! And it appears that life is glorious after all as the NZSO and Edo de Waart delivered a huge Turandot-sized tutti finish to the triumphant cheers from the audience.
Edo de Waart will lead the NZSO will next take on Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 and No. 9 at the Auckland Town Hall on Nov 24, 2018. The latter will feature four incredible soloists - soprano Madeleine Pierard, mezzo-soprano Kristin Darragh, tenor Simon O’Neill and bass Anthony Robin Schneider - and premier choir Voices New Zealand.
Tickets now available at Ticketmaster.