Hearing and observing Bernard Haitink conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony no. 7 was a true privilege. Haitink and the CSO share a fruitful history, particularly with regard to Mahler. As former Principal Conductor of the orchestra, the Dutch maestro and Mahler champion led the CSO in several recordings of Mahler’s symphonies. Although they never recorded the Seventh, the collaboration last night was of that level of quality. The familiarity between orchestra and conductor allowed for a powerful rendition of a symphony probably not very familiar to many listeners.

Bernard Haitink © Todd Rosenberg
Bernard Haitink
© Todd Rosenberg

The Seventh is perhaps the black sheep of the Mahler symphonic canon, enjoying neither the popularity nor the quantity of performances as the others. It is a bizarre work, with an ambiguous, shifting tonal center (Schoenberg was a big fan), and a lack of programmatic meaning or any vocal text as offered by Mahler in some of his other symphonies. Although an explicit program is avoided, the Seventh Symphony is sometimes nicknamed “The Song of the Night”. Mahler didn’t approve of this title, but he did write to a critic of the central movements being “three night pieces” and the finale as a “bright day”. Night, or the contrast between light and dark, seems to be a general theme in the symphony, if not its raison d’être.

The first of five movements served as a foundation for the “night” movements to follow. In the introduction, trombonist Michael Mulcahy played a songful melody on the tenor horn (an instrument somewhere between a horn and trombone) which was then interrupted by an ominous march motive filled with dotted rhythms, recalling the opening movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. This juxtaposition of heavenly arioso-style tunes with driving, martial material continued throughout the movement, and was taken through its harmonic paces, undergoing numerous modulations. All this made for a mercurial opening movement, setting up for more oddities to come.

Today, the term “night music” will remind many listeners of the alien soundscapes envisioned by Bela Bartók. Decades before those notes were penned however, Mahler wrote his own “Nachtmusik” of a very different sort. The second movement of the Seventh Symphony is a sort of nocturnal march, rather than the serenade its name might imply. Hornists Daniel Gingrich and Susanna Gaunt played the call and response motif to open the movement before the main march theme was taken up by the orchestra. Colorful elements such as cowbells in the distance and warbling woodwind bird calls instilled the movement with a pastoral feel throughout. It was not entirely pleasant however, as the march theme could never quite decide whether it was in a major or minor key, and the col legno (playing with the wood of the bow rather than the hair) accompaniment in the strings (played with relish by the CSO) evoked the rattle of skeletons.

If spookiness was only hinted at previously, the third, central movement was downright strange. A mix of waltz tunes and Ländler was punctuated with various creative touches in orchestration. Whether it was the slurping sounds of the violins playing the melody with slides up to their highest notes or the shrieking of trumpets and woodwinds, there was an oddity at every turn. One of the most striking gestures was a pizzicato in the cellos and basses, who were instructed by Mahler to pluck the string so hard that it rebounds against the fingerboard. This technique is now known as the “Bartók pizzicato,” but again Mahler was ahead of his time, writing this distinctive sound long before Bartók made it famous. The CSO's commitment to gestures such as a this strident pizzicato made for a totally effective, expressive performance.

The second “Nachtmusik” was more of a serenade than the first, and intimate in its orchestration. Notably, the solo violin was accompanied by a trio of plucked strings, harp, guitar, and mandolin, for a very distinct sound. Concertmaster Robert Chen produced a glorious tone throughout, recalling the lush sound of a vintage Hollywood score.

In the rondo finale, Haitink and the CSO truly shone. Haitink’s compact, crisp conducting style helped create a sense of constant surging forward to the end, important in a movement with seven iterations of the rondo theme. The CSO brass came into their own here. In particular, the trumpets sounded especially well in Mahler’s stratospheric writing. It was a thrilling ride to the end of the movement, with the percussion section creating an irresistible rhythmic drive causing much foot tapping and bobbing of heads in the audience. The exuberant final chord was met with rapturous, well-deserved applause.