Monday, 8 January 2018

MAHLER 7 / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (6 January 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 8 January 2017 with the title "Myriad emotions felt in one symphony".

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 ten 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 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 listener 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 all-encompassing. The lugubrious 1st 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.

Percussion principal Jonathan Fox
tending to the slung cow-bells.

The three central movements were also unusual as it 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 2nd movement and the sickly sweet sentimentality of the 4th movement. The intervening Scherzo abounded with spectral sound effects, 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 checkered 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”.

With a wave of the hand,
Music Director Shui Lan bids farewell.

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