BBC Proms reviews

Prom 62: Mahler’s often neglected symphony given a star performance by Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic

3 September 2022

Mahler’s oddly disjointed symphony No. 7 gets a thoroughly professional workout.

Berlin Philharmonic & Kirill Petrenko (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

“Needs more cowbell” is a flip expression often heard in the music business, and one wonders whether it was around in Mahler’s time, and he took it to heart for his seventh symphony, as their comedic clonking pervades the second movement, and, along with the guitar and mandolin (what is it with Mahler and mandolins? there’s one in the eighth too) in the fourth movement they highlight the thematic rift between the symphony’s central three movements and its outer two, adding to the work’s reputation for being a ‘difficult listen’. It’s probably easier, really, to relax, forget that this is a symphony, and simply enjoy it as five sections of an odd tone poem for which the story has been lost, but whose central alpine wanderings take one to Switzerland (cowbells), Austria (guitar) and Italy (mandolin).

The Berlin Philharmonic needs little introduction, as it has long been recognised, directed by some huge names in musical history, as a world-class orchestra, and under their current conductor, Kirill Petrenko, the excellent standard of performance continues. Their Proms account of Mahler 7, then, both promised – and delivered – a well-considered result, such that, however one views the symphony, it made for a highly enjoyable 80 minutes of music. Petrenko himself is a delight to watch; he’s a balletic conductor, and his fluid gestures are intuitively communicative (it’s the shoulder action that seems to be the key for the lighter material), so that the orchestra followed every nuance of direction around texture, tempo and dynamic.

“It’s probably easier, really, to relax, forget that this is a symphony, and simply enjoy it…”

Kirill Petrenko (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

The first movement depends, for its opening section, on a brass chorus at the top of its game, in terms of interpreting Mahler’s moody swerves from excited fanfare to muted whimpering, and, by and large, this was successful. Surprisingly, there was the occasional wobble in the early fade-outs, but once the orchestra got into its stride a few bars later, all slipped into the usual flawless delivery, with an excellent pull up into a quiet dynamic, and the subsequent odd combo of a clarinet and trumpet fanfare. The strings throughout confirmed the orchestra’s reputation for perfect intonation, and cleverly nuanced variation in tone.

The second movement’s opening horn call had just the right touch of blare to it, heralding a clear understanding of Mahler’s somewhat bonkers soundworld for this movement: the clicking strings, the almost jocular double bass rhythm, the mellow strings for the jolly little march, and the quietest triangle note ever, were immaculately delivered, and topped by a brilliantly executed account of the near final passage that descends through the strings.

The New York traffic screech of woodwind that opens the third movement was suitably jarring, and subsequent the little portamenti of the violins in the waltz were cleverly judged for just the right amount of levity. The later ‘cello passage was full of deliciously high harmonics that contrasted well with the subsequent indigestion in the woodwind. The balance of guitar and mandolin against orchestra in the fourth movement is sometimes difficult to judge, but Petrenko and the orchestra breezed it, to bring its charming but bonkers textures out in full; the passage for oboe, mandolin, guitar and pizzicato low strings was particularly fine.

The contrast between genuine and mocking laughter in the final movement usually presents a bit of a challenge (the opening section is unbelievably jolly for Mahler), and the orchestra certainly blurred the boundaries, but, particularly towards the end of the movement (after a splendid allargando into the Ländleresque secton), the irony shone through.

• Full details of the BBC Proms season 2022 can be found here.

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Prom 62: Mahler’s often neglected symphony given a star performance by Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic