Zander, Boston Philharmonic serve Mahler’s Seventh straight up mit Schwung  

April 27, 2012 at 6:22 pm

By David Wright

Benjamin Zander conducted the Boston Philharmonic in Mahler's Symphony No. 7 Thursday night.

Gustav, we hardly knew ye.

Mahler relentlessly cheerful?  It hardly seems possible, yet that is the situation for most (some would say all) of the composer’s Symphony No. 7, with its mellow rustic tableaux and finale that bangs away at C major for a good quarter of an hour.  It is as if the famously bipolar composer had left one of his poles in a taxi somewhere.

That seemingly “unmahlerlich” attitude, along with a certain heterogeneity of style and character among the symphony’s five movements, has made the Seventh a puzzle for analysts and conductors alike.  What’s it all about, Alfie—or in this case, Benjamin?

While offering few answers to that question, the performance in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre on Thursday night by Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic was nevertheless distinguished for its rhythmic drive, solid ensemble, expressive phrasing, and superb rendering of Mahler’s inimitable sonic effects.

The symphony began with one of those effects, a soft shudder of strings under a crisp call in dotted rhythm by the tenor horn.  One expected a dire opening summons in the manner of the Fifth or the Sixth Symphonies, but Mahler’s heart didn’t quite seem to be in it.

Later, even as high clarinet and flute combined to hiss their acidic phrases, and then the strings rose to a climactic shriek, one couldn’t shake the feeling that the composer had done all this before, and with more conviction.

This sensation of Mahler-on-Prozac can’t be laid entirely or even mostly at the door of Zander and his excellent pro-am orchestra, which played with insight and, as Mahler directs at one point in the score, “mit großem Schwung” (with great verve).

Every section of the orchestra had moments of distinction.  The string tone, while not exactly lush, covered the full color range from the aforementioned shriek to a cashmere-scarf caress, and the string sections played with seemingly perfect unity in both the bold phrases and the rapid passages.

Mahler works the brass hard, especially the horns and trombones, and the Philharmonic players kept it together all evening, with only a few fielding errors in thousands of chances.  If there was less “brass impact” than one hears in some other Mahler performances, that too was more attributable to the score than the playing.

The symphony’s many solos were played with uniformly high quality. Principal horn Kevin Owen topped them all with a series of vivid solos ranging from exuberant whoops to comical staccato to shapely, golden-toned melodies.

Presiding over all this, Zander achieved an orchestral sound that was transparent in its details yet well-knit in a common purpose.

Mahler himself is not much help in making that purpose clear.  The puzzle deepens in the middle movements, three nocturnal character pieces that were composed a year before the outer movements and seem to come from another expressive world.  The central scherzo is marked Schattenhaft (shadowy), which also could describe the other two, a furtive march and a dainty, tiptoeing Andante amoroso.  Zander let each piece be itself, moving it along and paying attention to every expressive quirk and atmospheric sound along the way.

Yet during the Andante one couldn’t help feeling that this performance, despite its wealth of beautiful and intriguing detail, didn’t feel like it was going in any particular direction.  Zander hadn’t solved the puzzle of the Seventh, and the pews in the Sanders Theatre were starting to feel a bit hard.

Rescue arrived with the symphony’s wild finale, in which, for exuberance and sheer length, Mahler seemed to be trying to out-Beethoven Beethoven’s Fifth, while also evoking the warm, celebratory mood of Die Meistersinger.

In this kind of music, Zander’s now-this, now-that approach worked just fine.  He pressed his well-drilled band ahead, rarely letting up, never lingering, leaving little time for a listener to sit there in dour music-critic mode, thinking “This is awfully long” or “What is the point?”  Instead, one was prompted to just lean back and appreciate each of Mahler’s thoughts and afterthoughts as it came, wondering what crazy new chord or special effect the master—and the maestro—would come up with next.

As a prelude to the concert, Zander gave a talk about the symphony with live illustrations from the orchestra, a speaking performance as animated and passionate as the musical one that followed.  At one point, he forgot about complete sentences and just exclaimed, “So many details in this music!  So much beauty!  Such great players!”

And really, if you’ve got that, it’s all right if Mahler’s Seventh remains a puzzle for a while longer.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at Jordan Hall, and 3 p.m. Sunday at Sanders Theatre.   bostonphil.org.  617-236-0999

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