BSO plays Mahler with a swagger

June 17, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Of Mahler's nine imposing symphonies, the Seventh is the most problematic. Perhaps the word should be weird. This was a composer who had a tendency to throw everything (including the kitchen sink) into his symphonies, and in this piece he surpassed himself.

There is the Mahler we know and love in a first movement funeral march and in two "nightmusic" sections -- which blend the bizarre and the heroic and (in the second) the ardently romantic.

But two movements seem to have no precedents in the composer's previous work: a short scherzo in D Minor that approaches and points the path to Webern, Bartok and Shostakovich in the manner it uses bleating woodwinds and slithery strings in a brutal lampooning of the Viennese waltz; and a final movement that takes the ultra-Germanic affability known as Gemuetlichkeit and makes it downright freaky. This huge rondo makes even some staunch Mahlerians blanch. It is not merely that it quotes Wagner and Lehar in a way that exposes them to ridicule; it is that Mahler turns the trick in a manner so deliberately vulgar that he makes the Richard Strauss of the "Symphonia Domestica" seem positively high-toned by comparison.

The Mahler Seventh is not, therefore, an easy work to pull off, but David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony did a near-magnificent job last night in Meyerhoff Hall. This was perhaps the best Mahler this listener has ever heard from this conductor. The performance was big, and it had a swaggering freedom that is sometimes missing from his Mahler performances. He was able to draw all the threads in the composer's crazy quilt together: an inexorable tread in the opening funeral march; a keen control of tension in the first nightmusic episode and expressive tenderness in the second; and pointillistic eeriness in the scherzo.

Best of all might have been the uproarious finale, in which the conductor pulled out all the stops, suggesting that Mahler's ultimate object of parody in this movement was his own music.

The orchestra played beautifully. All that kept it from reaching the level obtained in the best Mahler performances was a certain overexcitement that will probably be better controlled in repeat performances tonight and Saturday morning.

Still, it was good to hear this orchestra attack this symphony with such confidence; it made it seem a very long time ago (though it was only about six or seven seasons back) when a BSO performance of the Symphony No. 2 went off the rails because the orchestra smelled fear.

The concert opened with George Perle's "Adagio for Orchestra," which was commissioned for a BSO performance in Carnegie Hall last spring and was being performed here for the first time.

This was eight minutes of music by one of our best composers that made a superb introduction to the 80-minute Mahler symphony. With a rich Berg-like expressiveness in the lower strings and sinuous lines and keening by the high brass, Perle evoked the night in which the Mahler Seventh resides.

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