The first of the two Edinburgh International Festival concerts given by the Czech Philharmonic was devoted to Czech music. Hardly less appropriate was the single work in this second concert. Mahler’s Seventh Symphony was premiered by this orchestra, conducted by the composer, in Prague in 1908. It was not then, and has not often been since, the most successful of his works with its audience. Yet its stature continues to grow since its early championship by Schoenberg, even though not many have agreed with Lorin Maazel, who recorded the whole cycle twice, that it is the best of the ten symphonies.

Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic
© Jess Shurte

Chief Conductor Semyon Bychkov set out as if determined to assert its claims upon our attention. The bellowing tenor horn with its lugubrious tune is not a subtle start, but the mighty paragraph built upon it here became the most portentous portal of any entrance into Mahler’s world. “Nature roars!” said Mahler. “What’s beautiful about blowing away at a trumpet stopped up to high C sharp?” challenged his first trumpet in Prague. Indeed the work is very difficult to play for almost every section, but these players had the measure of it. The coda of the first movement was a thrilling summation, not least the searing top note from that first trumpet’s brilliant successor. Rafael Kubelík once said “In Bohemia, the trumpets never call to battle – they always call to the dance”; this trumpet section would have had cavalrymen leaping into the saddle.

The three inner movements of the Seventh offer varieties of night music, and the central Scherzo is marked Schattenhaft or “shadowy”, but that could apply to all three. Nachtmusik 1 opens with a lilting horn call, answered by a muted horn suggesting a fainter echo, one of many poetic moments in a piece full of bird calls in the woodwind and cowbells, both suggesting diurnal rather than nocturnal delights. But there is also a ghostly cortège, and Bychkov sensed the right speed for each of these elements. The Scherzo’s malign mocking waltz is perhaps a Totentanz  recalling Mahler’s severed relations with Vienna itself (hence the Prague premiere) – certainly the players relished its challenges, and the tempo was, as marked, “flowing but not too fast”. Nachtmusik 2 marked Andante amoroso uses a much reduced orchestra and adds a guitar and mandolin, the latter’s small voice sometimes inaudible beyond the front rows as usual. This serenade showed that, with the heavy brass and percussion silenced, the rest of the Czech Phil could exude some old-world charm.

Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic in Usher Hall
© Jess Shurte

Day dawns to scatter these shadows with a finale of a scale to match that of the first movement. Its length and elated rejoicing, and its sudden dislocations, are a challenge for the conductor and Bychkov might have made more of all this variety with a greater range of dynamics. Very quiet playing, in a hall which responds to it, was in short supply. But his idiomatic direction of this composer bodes well for the new cycle being recorded with his orchestra, and his single-minded vision of the movement seemed to see the end in the beginning. So we were rewarded with a grand sense of arrival at the close, eighty minutes after we began. The coda was a percussion-led paean of praise to the garish day, a colourful pageant with all flags flying. The cheers from an excited audience turned a good performance into a great occasion, worthy of the Festival’s 75th anniversary year.