|Pierre Boulez leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.|
Photo © 2009 Todd Rosenberg/Chicago Symphony Orchestra
The Mahler Seventh is the unloved stepchild of the composer's major orchestral works. Over five movements, it charts a strange, nighttime journey across lakes, up mountain passes, and through shadows that reek of the underworld. Most bizarre is the fnial Rondo, where arching walls of trumpets and cascading horns evoke Wagner's Die Meistersinger in a blaze of sonic sunlight.
Mr. Boulez led a carefully controlled performance. The march figures of the first movement were kept to a strict beat, with minimal hand movements drawing powerful waves of sound from the orchestra. Rumbling basses and bassoons filled in orchestral colors of blue and black. The tenorhorn solo (played here on a baritone tuba) evokes a mysterious mission, and the riotous marches and stumbling waltz that follows indicates that that mission might have ended at a local public house.
The first Nachtmusik continued this trend, with the warm tones of the Chicago horns leading Mahler's mysterious mountain trek. The Schattenhaft third movement sounded spooky and spiky in Mr. Boulez' hands, with its forward-looking shrieks in the strings evoking the modern sound-world that would follow Mahler's work. The fourth movement (a second Nachtmusik blended the solo violin against an unusual backdrop of horns, mandolin and guitar. The impression of gentle peace, of conflict resolved and rest earned held sway.
The charging Rondo came last, with the Meistersinger theme front and center. The brass dominate this movement, fighting upstream against a headlong, fugal rhythm that sounds like Bach gone mad. This is Mahler at his most diatonic. A century after the composer's death, the motives for this weird, noisy finale are still obscure. But no matter. The brass played gloriously, with trumpets ringing out and trombones sliding swiftly down the scale as the horns drove the theme to its bright, blinding climax.