Norman Stinchcombe reviews Mahler’s Seventh Symphony by the Philharmonia Orchestra at Birmingham Symphony Hall.
Henry James famously dismissed Tolstoy’s War and Peace for not being a novel but rather a “loose baggy monster”. It certainly had life, he wrote, but lacked “organic form”. It’s a description that might apply to Mahler’s seventh symphony, which can sound like a five-movement sprawl if played without the utmost conviction.
But the blazing intensity and instrumental panache of this performance by the Philharmonia under Gustavo Dudamel reduced reservations about form and structure to quibbles. Curmudgeons could dismiss Dudamel’s decision to allow just about every player to take a bow as indulgent. But everyone really did deserve their applause.
Dudamel was at one with the spirit of the work, its grotesque Hoffmann-like sense of fantasy and kaleidoscopic changes of orchestral colour.
Who but Mahler would have thought of opening with a horn call but transforming a romantic cliché into something fresh and disturbing by assigning it to a rasping tenor horn?
He wanted it to sound like “nature roaring” and the Philharmonia’s player gave us just that, using the “big tone” Mahler demanded. The romantic trumpet calls and wind trills sounded magically distanced; the second night-music movement’s violin and mandolin solos were sweet but never sickly.
At the introduction of the beautiful second theme of the first movement Dudamel couldn’t resist slowing down despite Mahler’s insistence on maintaining tempo but this was a minor indulgence. He launched into the last movement without a pause but the sudden timpani assault was the sort of theatrical gesture Mahler might have relished.