Myriad emotions felt in one symphony

Mahler 7.



Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Saturday

Concerts featuring a single symphony as the only work are now becoming more common with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

This is especially so when programming symphonies by Gustav Mahler, as more than half of his 10 symphonies run in excess of 75 minutes.

The Austrian composer once proclaimed, "A symphony is like a world, it must embrace everything", and so it was with the SSO's fourth performance of his Seventh Symphony.

Considered the most enigmatic and least accessible symphony of the canon, the Seventh is also the most problematic in terms of interpretation. Its sheer profusion of themes, ideas, emotions, moods, philosophies and instrumental quirks often leave listeners confused as to the composer's thoughts and intentions.

Unlike his symphonies which end with tragedy (No. 6), resignation (No. 9), bliss (No. 4), or triumph (most of the others), the messages sent in the five movements of the Seventh can be seen as mixed or equivocal.

Music director Shui Lan's vision seemed to to follow Mahler's famous dictum, that is to be allencompassing.

The lugubrious first movement opened unusually with the call of the tenor horn, here heard on Marques Young's euphonium, with the pace being a funereal trudge. That was contrasted with a lyrical and yearning second theme, first heard on the strings, with the transitions in between being most subtly handled.

Even the first big orchestral climax was patiently built up and it crept up almost surreptitiously. This made the next climax seem all the more mighty and more vehement. That surely is the art of interpreting, following close scrutiny and study of the score's architecture, not merely notes and notations.

The three central movements were also unusual as they included two designated as Nachtmusik (Night Music) with a Scherzo filled with dark, hissing grotesquerie in between. Here Mahler's peculiar scoring included slung cowbells, mandolin and guitar, besides a battery of assorted percussion - almost the proverbial kitchen sink.

More importantly, the performance brought out the vulgar, homespun country inspiration of the second movement and the sickly sweet sentimentality of the fourth movement. The intervening Scherzo abounded with spectral sound effects and nocturnal noises which just about disguised a parodistic waltz, arguably Mahler's weirdest symphonic movement.

All these earthy qualities, typical of and true to the composer's chequered life experiences, were thrown into this mix. Outstanding were the solo contributions of French horn principals Jakob Keiding (guesting for the indisposed Han Chang Chou) and Jamie Hersch, trumpet principal Jon Dante, and the brass and woodwind sections as a whole.

The finale, combining Rondo and sonata form in a single movement, provided the symphony the levity it cried out for. To this end, Shui and his charges delivered with briskness and much aplomb.

Its secondary themes were tossed around with playful and almost whimsical abandon before a drive to the symphony's thrilling close. It was a way of saying, "Life's a pain, but have fun anyway."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2018, with the headline 'Myriad emotions felt in one symphony'. Print Edition | Subscribe