Tuesday, February 08, 2011

CSO's Mahler a feast for the ear

by Janelle Gelfand
February 3, 2011

Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 is his least famous and perhaps his most misunderstood symphony.

It has neither an obvious program nor a spiritual quest. But rather than try to analyze why this symphony is so different from Mahler’s tragic Sixth or his grandiose Eighth, it might be better to accept it as one of Mahler’s most inventive, haunting, curious and brilliant pieces.

Or, what Mahler scholar Deryck Cooke called “a continual feast for the ear.”

So it was in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the Seventh, led by Paavo Järvi on Thursday night in Music Hall.

Written in 1904-05, the 80-minute (give or take) symphony is cast in five movements. Some regard the center three, including two “Night Music” movements, as being the most fascinating. But that shortchanges the first, which seems to alternate between gloom and glitter, and the cheerful, pull-out-the-stops finale.

From the start to the finish of this work, Järvi led with driving intensity. Orchestral textures were clear, with pointed articulation. The listener was thrust into the Mahler sound world of marches and brass fanfares, drums and timpani rolls. Clipped fragments of themes grew into full-blown melodies in the strings, but Järvi never allowed them to become sentimental.

The “Night Music” movements were otherworldly, bristling with the kind of electricity that stands your hair on end. Emerging from the large orchestra were echoing horns, chortling winds, mandolin, guitar and the gentle rattle of cowbells.

And at the symphony’s center, a lopsided waltz, a whiff of old Vienna, unfolded in quirky fragments of melodies, fits and stops.

All of these details Järvi brought out, and the musicians responded with excellent, alert playing, with many impressive contributions from orchestral soloists.

The second, more romantic “Nachtmusik” could have benefited from a more lingering, relaxed atmosphere. But the conductor’s forward momentum worked especially well in Mahler’s meandering finale, which erupted in pounding timpani and brass fanfares, and flowed engagingly through peaks and valleys before finishing in a frenzy of chimes, brass, cowbells and crashing drum rolls.

The evening opened with the second of five fanfares commissioned in honor of Järvi’s 10th anniversary as music director and classical radio WGUC’s 50th. Munich-born composer Jörg Widmann’s short “Souvenir bavarois” (Remembering Bavaria) was a humorous cross between Stravinsky, the circus and a Bavarian oom-pah band.

The program was being taped for later broadcast over WGUC, and possibly a future recording on the orchestra’s own label.


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