Commemorating Emporer Franz Joseph’s 60th jubilee, Gustav Mahler himself conducted his Seventh Symphony’s 1908 première in Prague to a largely enthusiastic reception. Arnold Schoenberg recognized it as an “an extraordinarily great treat”… and wrote to Mahler to express surprise that he had not been “won over to this before.” Yet historically, conductors, musicians and musicologists have often considered the Seventh something of a “problem child” and many performances of the symphony have met with scepticism and bewilderment. No question; the work’s five movements’ perpetual change of tempi and contexts, unpredictable counterpoint, use of unusual instruments and perpetuation of what we today might call “mood swings” clearly make it one of Mahler’s most radical and provocative works. Yet, even as Schoenberg’s accolade portends, it is also acknowledged as a preview to works in the later 20th century.

Even before the Tonhalle concert began, there were signs that this was to be a major musical event. Every available seat was taken by an audience of varied ages, and the huge configuration of some 100 players stretched well out into the hall on a temporary stage extension. Bernard Haitink, now 86, who has a long and revered association with this orchestra, had a captain’s command of his huge vessel from the start.

As is his way, Haitink conducted with economical gestures – using his arms only within the limits of his upper body and rarely raising the baton above his head. Under that direction, the orchestra gave back in kind: an extraordinary shared discipline that produced a riveting palette of tempi and color as a single instrument.

The symphony’s huge Allegro risoluto first movement included a dizzying density of sounds, the strings first alternating among piercingly shrill emissions, and later, transitioning around some of the brass themes. The whole movement culminated in what felt like a boisterous New Years’ Eve party, resonating even more perhaps, because of the unique ship-like construction of the Tonhalle’s wooden stage.

The Allegro moderato – the first of the two “Night Music” movements – was essentially a walk in the forest at nightfall. It was complete with the horns echoing stage calls from “the distance” and the flutter of various kinds of skittish birds overhead. The movement essentially felt like a rambling march. The woodwinds, particularly strong here, struck out with startling confidence, while the amusement of plaintive cowbells – while a bit unwieldy in their handling – reminded the audience (with varying appreciation) of a sound that’s familiar. This is Switzerland, after all.

Often called the “shadow-like” movement, the Scherzo was unexpectedly humorous. The strings took up a tone that almost sounded like a nagging wife; the woodwinds rushed around without much place to go, and the strong celli entered into to a dialogue or dance with the tuba. The final strike on the drum and a brass chord might be likened to a dancer ending on hard point, almost as if to say, “now then, take that!”  

In the romantic serenade of the fourth movement Andante amoroso − the second of Mahler’s “night music” movements − the solo oboe “asked” many questions in music that revolve around love: Where are we going? Where might we land? Orchestrated lightly, smallish groups of instruments and the mandolin and guitar entered into lyrical play, one that included the simplest and most straightforward of melodies.

And finally, the magnificent Rondo started out like a “Battle of the Titans”. The horns were taken to their uppermost limits of their register; the stage literally trembled. Any musical trajectory got side-tracked so much and so often in this last movement that surprises were the norm, including homages such as that to Wagner and, oddly, even “Twinkle, twinkle little star”. And why not? The climax was greater for the delay in getting there. Then after all the heraldic majesty of pealing bells and rolling drums, Haitink brought down Mahler’s last major chord as demonstrably as this memorable performance brought down the house.

Mahler is said to have hoped to impart a sense of “I am the world” with this music. Haitink knows his Mahler viscerally, and brought out the best of his players to that end. When he left the stage for the last of six times, each to thunderous applause and a final standing ovation, the conductor gave a salute that would mark a true captain.

After the first performance of Mahler’s Seventh in America – by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1921− music critic Herman Devries wrote: “The entire symphonyis so evidently a work of supreme and dominating intelligence that it seems presumptuous, importunate, for me to attempt any criticism.” I feel the same way.