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Review of City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra performing Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 7

The City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Robert Hodge devoted its Saturday evening performance to the lengthy 7th Symphony of Gustav Mahler.

This symphony describes a process from darkness to light, a common enough Romantic theme – one thinks of Beethoven’s Fidelio – but the process in Mahler is by no means a straightforward one.

CCSO conductor Robert Hodge
CCSO conductor Robert Hodge

The sound of the opening tenor horn evokes a mysterious lake setting, reflecting perhaps Mahler’s remark that a row across an Alpine lake gave him the idea for the rhythm and style of the introduction to his first movement. Something of the comparable symphonic tone poem comes to mind here, in particular Liadov’s Enchanted Lake (1909), first performed only a year after the premier performance of Mahler’s symphony.

The second movement, namely the first of the two marked Nachtmusik, both written in advance of the rest of the symphony, takes the form of a march moving against a background of sounds from the natural world that Mahler so loved. Once again the movement begins with a solo horn, but then periodically we hear birdsong and cowbells within the woodwind intervals, reminiscent of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. The next time we hear the horn it is leading the orchestra to a darker place.

The following scherzo’s denotation is schattenhaft (shadowy), opening with a pizzicato on bass (there was some impressive work from the bass section throughout the symphony) and developing into a spooky waltz. CCSO captured the eeriness of the situation perfectly. In many respects it seems to have been influenced by Berlioz, e.g. movement 5 of the Symphonie Fantastique (1830) – Mahler’s 7th has 5 movements too – and Berlioz seems to have passed on to Mahler his idea of a drama of instruments (aside from voices) for the potential in a large orchestra to represent, through instrumentation alone, the experiences of the soul.

The second Nachtmusik piece (Movement 4) creates a world of enchantment, and opens with the sound of an amorous violin, soon to be joined by a guitar and mandolin (traditional serenade instruments), and joined in turn by horn, oboe, cello, clarinet and bassoon, all played with their most romantic allure.

CCSO conductor Robert Hodge
CCSO conductor Robert Hodge

Mahler’s world is perhaps best represented by the mixture of approaches his symphony as a whole takes to the complex vision he has of life. Arnold Schoenberg especially admired the 7th Symphony as a kind of gateway into Mahler’s music – full of different styles, infinitely allusive, with passing references, some of which may not be intentional.

The 5th movement, a rondo, starts robustly with bold brass fanfares and drum tattoos. It seems determined to provide an upbeat finish to the work, somewhat in the manner of a Tchaikovsky symphonic conclusion, and CCSO really gave all they could deliver to a movement which seems at times to protest rather too much.

Now and again we may have been surprised at the intervention of a melody familiar to us in this country as Baa Baa Black Sheep. There’s no doubt that from the final movement of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, US songwriters Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal took inspiration for ‘I’ll be seeing you (in all the old familiar places’) (1938).

In Mahler’s 7th the situation is perhaps reversed. The composer has had recourse to a nursery rhyme of the 1740s, and the music to which it is sung in English and which belongs to an old French children’s song of the 1760s. The tune creeps into the second Nachtmusik, too.

For some, this Finale has spoiled the conclusion to a developing narrative, and arguments have been made for the way it compromises what came before. But if this is so, it’s not a situation without precedent across the arts. ‘Nothing so difficult as a beginning in poetry’, wrote Lord Byron, ‘except perhaps the end.’

Mahler’s 7th Symphony is an amazing work in so many ways and perhaps should be accepted, warts and all. CCSO undoubtedly made out the best of cases for it, and it certainly gave their brilliant conductor Robert Hodge the ideal occasion for a workout.


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