NTSO’s Mahler 7th Symphony

featuring Karl-Heinz Schütz, flute; Tamás Gál, guest conductor

Another Mahler 7! It’s my second so far, and is, at least to me, by far the weirdest of his symphonic output.

This performance took place in the same city as Mahler 1, by the same orchestra, a few months back. In that concert, the scheduled conductor took ill and had to cancel relatively last minute, but his replacement was quite good! Tamás Gál was the third conductor listed for this concert, after two others backed out or canceled, but let me say, he did a fantastic job.

As the title suggests, Mahler’s seventh was the feature for the evening, but it wasn’t the only thing on the program, although it could have been, for its length. First we had Lowell Liebermann’s concerto for flute and orchestra, op. 39. Joseph Stevenson describes it at AllMusic. It’s a three movement work, which is typical, but without any of them being in the typical sonata form. The last, though, is a rondo.

We’re not in a (true) nice concert hall, but it was tons better than Mahler 1 nearby back in January. Tons. That being said, Schütz had no problem making himself heard and blending with the orchestra when necessary. The first movement is a dreamy, nocturne-like movement, and Stevenson likens it to late Prokofiev. I can see that. It’s cinematic and beautiful, and features the flute naturally, and by that I mean the orchestra isn’t just a platter, and we’re not just supposed to listen to a flute for a half hour. It’s good writing, and Schütz handles the lyricism of the first and even more so in the second movements with excellent aplomb. The second is even more spacious and lyrical, cinematic, but the third and final movement is absolutely jaw-dropping in the unrelenting flow of notes, and their speed. If you ever wondered what a Shostakovich flute concerto might sound like, this gets somewhat close. At the very least, it suggests the wit and sarcasm and mischief you might hear from the Russian master, and even a little bit of menace, but not as acerbic or violent. It’s an exciting, wonderful work and Schütz plays with remarkable clarity, power, and tenderness. There was not a single moment in which he was in danger of being overpowered, but was also never really harsh. Flute concertos aren’t really terribly popular, at least compared to those for violin or piano, but this is a gem.

After Schütz got a swig or two of water, he came out to give us a Debussy encore, and i thought about how these two pieces really work quite well on the first half of a program that features Mahler’s oddest symphony after the half. The Liebermann concerto is dreamy and sweet, like a quiet walk by a river at night, but then also at times bursting with frightening amounts of energy, and the Debussy is rich and lush, even sensual, wit his typical harmonic language.

15-minute break and lots more chairs onstage before we get around to Mahler.

I should mention here (actually should have done so earlier) that Gál was almost chosen as music director of the NTSO (National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra, not based out of Taipei). He’d led them before, they had good chemistry, and had gotten into serious talks and contracts were ready to be signed apparently, but in negotiation of details (which ones I’m not sure), it ended up not working out, I think due to scheduling, and it’s a dosh garn shame, because they really did work well together.

There are a number of challenges for the seventh, with most of them typical to much of Mahler’s music. Yes, it’s long. Yes, there are a lot of people, and yes, it’s technically challenging, of course. But that aside, there are lots of solos here, some really thin textures in the second and fourth movements, very ornate rhythms and complicated textures, that kind of thing, that make it a challenge to execute. Lastly, as I said, it’s a weird symphony. Five movements, with the central scherzo, two ‘night music’ movements all bookended by the most traditional and yet still very odd movements, the first a sonata form and the final a wild rondo.

Bringing all of this together into any kind of coherent, convincing whole is obviously difficult fora conductor, but I’d say Gál leaned into the work’s eccentricities and it worked in his favor. I found some tempi odd or unfamiliar, like the opening of the first movement, or the beginning of the fourth (which, granted, is how it’s indicated in the score, I know). But ultimately, it ended up making sense in a way I hadn’t thought about before.

The first movement begins much more slowly than I’m used to, affording it a darker, heavier sound, which doesn’t take much to get used to. The contrasting themes in this movement are indeed that, much faster, so this seems rather abrupt, and his tempo changes and rallentandos seemed a bit erratic, and the ensemble seemed not to be in step with his phrasing a few times; the first movement was by far the roughest, but still full a passion and a deep sense that the conductor has a compelling vision for the work overall, one he’s determined to sell us on.

There’s a rough mis-entry from the woodwinds in the exposition and some unfortunately garbled brass in one of the most delicate passages before the recapitulation, but other than that and some unique phrasing, I was excited, my heart doing a little bit of pounding as we reach the final, triumphant gesture of the first movement, which was perfectly executed.

The movements overall got better and better. The ensemble sounded more assured, and overall the solos from just about everyone were superb. It was clear that the soloists, be it horn, trumpet (both of which deserve special mention), strings, woodwinds, all pretty much nailed their solos, and that was appreciated. There were a few gnarly moments in the second movement with some unabashed (held) wrong notes, but really all the movements from there on, the scherzo pretty perfectly executed, dark and menacing, diseased, but at turns delicate and almost unsettlingly sweet before finishing in its shadowy, sly end, leading somehow now very logically to the fourth movement, very fast, but apparently it was intended to be so.

The most disparate of the five movements, then, is the rondo finale. What I mean when I said the conductor leaned into the piece’s oddness is that I feel he simply played each individual movement as iconically and truthfully as it could be played, while here and there linking up a few areas. For example, there were parts of the first movement that I thought hinted at the celebratory sunny nature of the finale, and the middle three movements were very well connected. The finale, as complicated and absurd and out-of-nowhere as some say it is, was exhilarating. Maybe it’s meant to be that way, as a celebration of survival, making it through the other side of something dark and terrifying and awful, and this makes even more sense to me with the paean to love that is his eighth.

In any case, yes, there were some hairier moments, a few rough spots here and there, but as my concert companion for the evening said, if only they’d had a little more rehearsal time, it could have been an absolutely stunning performance, near perfect even. The sound of the orchestra as a whole was rich and warm and fiery, Gál’s reading of the work was insightful and convincing, the solos were superb. There were really only a few little hiccups along the way, a few of them in unfortunately noticeable moments, but it could have been tons worse. I found myself at times with a faster pulse, a smile or goosebumps on multiple occasions, and it’s passion and intensity and insight into a work that can make up for a few technical mishaps, but those few critical moments, the final blow of the first movement, the scherzo as a whole, and the blazing horns and trills and close of the finale, and most everything in between, made for a memorable, respectable, delightful, powerful reading of what is maybe Mahler’s most challenging symphony, at least in some ways. And I feel bad for saying it was absolutely zero consideration in my attending this concert, but the flute concerto was an absolutely delightful surprise, making for a very satisfying evening. Looking forward to more from the NTSO, especially if they can make it to Taipei more often.

Well, that’s all for this weekend, but there’s tons more to come in the next few weeks. See you soon!

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