Barenboim tames Mahler's Seventh

Review: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra gives the troublesome work a passionate performance.

October 24, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

For many years, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 7 was viewed as the problem child among his orchestral output, a sprawling mass of sounds that refuse to behave. While the other eight completed symphonies gradually gained intense admiration, or at least respect, during the second half of the 20th century, the Seventh stood in the corner, craving attention.

Today, the situation seems much brighter. A look at a major music retailer's online catalog finds nearly 30 different recordings of the Seventh currently for sale, a plethora once unthinkable. And the work now turns up more frequently in concert halls, as it did Monday evening at the Kennedy Center, thanks to the Washington Performing Arts Society.

A rapt (though not capacity) audience appeared to savor every minute of a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

Perhaps if more people could hear Mahler's Seventh delivered as brilliantly and incisively as it was here, it would become one of the composer's most popular.

Barenboim may not necessarily be to the Mahler born (as he is to Wagner). I remember an account he gave of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 with the Chicagoans a few seasons ago that was practically devoid of personality and atmosphere, but here the conductor offered sizable portions of both.

The two "night music" movements that give this symphony its unique character were treated with particular care. Barenboim ensured that myriad details in the scoring, from the gentle rustling of cowbells and distant birdcalls to the evocative tremors of mandolin, emerged in telling fashion. He also relished a little tango passage in the first night music movement that I had never noticed before; easy for an Argentinean-born conductor to uncover it.

The sometimes-spooky Scherzo was alive with character as he had the strings whirling through the demented waltzes and the winds vividly accenting their biting commentary.

Barenboim's calm control over the symphony's daunting dimensions could not have been more apparent than in the opening movement. From the initial low rumbles, articulated with remarkable subtlety by the ensemble, the music moved inexorably forward. Shifts in tempo were smoothly accomplished, dynamic contrasts sharply defined.

Each phrase from the superb tenor horn soloist in that first movement sliced through the air like a primordial lament that was not entirely dissipated until the headlong finale signaled the triumph of light over darkness - or at least the putting on of a brave, optimistic front. Barenboim successfully held the finale's disparate elements together and even managed to get through the occasional banal spots so deftly that they seemed as inspired as the rest.

Ultimately, the conductor managed to make a very long symphony sound remarkably short, taut and irresistible.

The virtuoso status of the Chicago Symphony, traditionally ranked among America's top five orchestras, could not have been more apparent. Supple strings, prismatic woodwinds and the famous, rock-solid brass all contributed to the exceptional experience.

There was plenty of energy and polish left over for a scampering encore, the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. It may be possible to achieve even a little more in the way of ethereal magic in the piece, but, with terrific sparkle in the flute playing and seemingly effortless finesse from the strings, this was nonetheless another bravura demonstration of uncommon orchestral power.

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