Wien ist anders
I hold Mahler 7 slightly dear to my heart. Not because it is my favorite symphony or because it is beautiful and complicated, but because the primary thematic area of the first movement features the Tenorhorn (usually played on euphonium in North America). This makes the Symphony one of the few that features my instrument.
We got to Vienna from Brno via the train in the late afternoon on 26 Feb., just in time to find a hotel and settle in before the concert. It was great. One of the world’s first-class orchestras playing in one of the world’s most famous concert halls. The Musikverein is breathtaking – a bit too grandiose, but that is what visiting Vienna is all about. Though I knew it before, it was amazing to see the inspiration for Brno’s Besední dům. The colonial relationship between Brno and the Habsburg capital became much clearer and, while I know that Brno is a firmly Czech center nowadays, it is difficult to understand South Moravia without seeing its "Viennese" buildings in context. If Brno is only linked to Prague, which seems to be the fashion in post-Communist times, a major part of its identity and history are glossed over. I would not call it a "frontier" outpost, as one ethnomusicologist has called certain places in the Czech Republic, since it is stubbornly independent and doing well on its own; however, Brno’s importance as a provincial capital of Austro-Hungary until World War I should not be ignored. But I digress.
The Seventh Symphony is sometimes dubbed a night symphony. It has an overall "dark" atmosphere: the first movement opens with a march-like funereal atmosphere (surprise, it’s Mahler), and the three inner movements are loosely linked together by their "Nachtmusik" character. Mahler apparently likened the symphony to the sounds of nature: "Hier röhrt die Natur!" he once said of the tenor horn’s opening melody. Other themes and sections possibly have the connotations of "animal" sounds or the supernatural. Many of the themes are angular and feature stilted rhythms, and the harmonies are sometimes "strange" (they sound like Star Trek music). The last movement is in C major and closes in a triumphant mood. Whether this closing is too optimistic and the darker night scenes have just been masked over and recast in a positive light is an open question.
Gewandhaus played enthusiastically. I was particularly taken with the Tenorhornist’s opening, not just because I am me, but because the playing was flawless: heroic, in tune, and without a chipped note. The score is marked "mit Grosser Töne," and the player delivered just that, with just the right balance between a delectable dark tone and the clarity that this passage requires. It’s a very difficult section since the player has to enter on the second bar with a solo that is completely exposed, making this melody the first that the audience hears. The consolation (or is it punishment?) for all this stress is that the Tenorhorn plays its last note about a third of the way into the first movement and is silent for the rest of the symphony. Other highlights of the performance were the tuba solo later on in the first movement and in the third movement, the excellent horn playing (particularly solos by the principal), super bass clarinet and contra-bassoon, and great harps. Downsides: bad high reeds (can’t professional players tune E-flat clarinets or play with acceptable tone!?!), the first-movement trombone solo was blatty, boring, and uninspired.
My favorite section (apart from the introduction) was just after the mid-point of the first movement – the so-called "epiphanic climax."* A two-harp glissando introduces this section, which has the pastel, cloudy impression of Baroque visual art. There is a sense of ascension, though always accompanied by the realization that it cannot really culminate in a cadence at such an altitude. The the upper winds are descending, the basses are holding a pedal, and the brasses play distant rising fanfares. Very nicely done! When this section is about to reach an enraptured (but unattainable) climax, it is cut short by the low brass who answer it with a crushing response of material from the second thematic area. No more rapture, the good and light extinguished. When the light and optimism return in the last movement they come back, of course, with the support of the brass.
*Peter Franklin’s article on Mahler in TNGDMM2 online