Normally reluctant to provide programmatic explanations to his work, Gustav Mahler described his five-part Seventh Symphony to a Swiss critic as “three night pieces with the finale representing bright day, and a first movement as a foundation for the whole”. Despite its “simple”, symmetrical structure, the symphony has been considered problematic by many renowned interpreters due to the awkwardness of its last movement (viewed by Deryck Cooke, a veritable champion of Mahler’s oeuvre, as a case of Kappelmeistermusik – bland, “correct”, lacking inspiration). It is the least performed of Mahler’s major works. Truly successful performances that can make this finale a culmination of the eighty minutes of music are rare.

Mariss Jansons © Peter Meisel
Mariss Jansons
© Peter Meisel

On Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, a rendition by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Mariss Jansons was not very far from such an ideal performance. The tumultuous Allegro ordinario didn’t seem a negation of the music heard in prior movements but a valid extension. The colorful mixture of brass chorales, peasant dance tunes or references to Wagner’s Meistersinger and Lehár’s Merry Widow didn’t seem out of place. As he attempted in the first movement, Jansons threw light on every little detail of an outstanding orchestration. All instrumental voices, from the high-pitch piccolo to the low contrabassoon were individually audible.

Mahler’s score is defined by contrasts: dark vs light; clarity vs tumult; misty, dreamlike landscapes vs fanfares; the symmetry of the overall structure against the many abrupt shifts in mood and tempi. The biggest drawback of this version was the lack of sufficient emphasis on all these polarities. Mariss Jansons smoothed out many of the score’s edges. Arguably the most audacious and forward-looking of Mahler’s opuses (the one that allegedly converted Arnold Schoenberg into a true believer) the seventh is full of daring dissonances that should not be edulcorated. The gentleness of the central Scherzo, with its plethora of sound effects, was fully conveyed but less so the sinister, spooky character of the score. For a great interpreter of Shostakovich, the satire imbuing this music should have been easier to capture.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall © Peter Meisel
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
© Peter Meisel

On one side and the other of the Scherzo the two “night music” movements, composed as early as 1904, were rendered with Romantic verve. The inventiveness of Mahler’s writing was in full display. In the first Nachtmusik the emphasis was on refinement, as in the bars where two horns beautifully called on each other. For the second Nachtmusik, Jansons placed the mandolin and the guitar right in front of the violins, thus accentuating the more intimate nature of the music.

During the entire performance, the quality of sound produced by each and every instrumentalist was amazing. It made one wonder less why Mariss Jansons “gave up” the directorship of the Concertgebouw, the other “top-ten” orchestra he was leading. Anyway, the comparatively young Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunk, founded by the great conductor Eugen Jochum in 1949, needs to visit Carnegie Hall more often for the benefit of its many admirers.