April 10, 2015 - This spring, under the masterful baton of Bernard Haitink, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra treated the city to a rare performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. Like all Mahler symphonies, it is a mammoth work. As such, it was the sole selection programmed, and no intermission was taken—a wise decision, to be sure. Clocking in around one hour and thirty minutes, it is a reasonable amount of time to stay seated, and any significant pause in the music would have been completely disruptive to the experience of absorbing the music. Unlike most Mahler symphonies, it feels a little less cohesive and unified from beginning to end. It took Mahler longer to find this music, to give it direction and shape, and it may be due to this bit of writer’s block that it feels a little more like a collection of movements quilted together (two movements were written the summer of 1904, the remaining three in 1905) than one long piece of intricately woven fabric.

In the opening movement, many passages strain upward into the stratosphere, pushing up and up into some remarkably high pitches. Simply due to the physics of the sound production in that register (the extremely rapid beating of the sound waves), there is a built in level of tension that feels as if it teeters on the edge of breaking. What was most striking (and surprising) was that sonically, the orchestra's seemed almost shrill, and that's not necessarily a negative observation. Their sound was burnished, and yet a little brittle—likely Haitink's choice, an intriguing one in light of the movement's range.

“Night music” is the descriptor for the three inner movements, which feature some unique timbres thanks to the use of cowbells, guitar and mandolin. Bravo to the guitar and mandolin soloists for their performances. However, their physical positioning seated behind the first row of first violins seemed a little odd for two reasons: 1) they were rather prominently displayed (visually awkward, actually) given the fact they perform in only one of the movements, and 2) they were very difficult to hear from as close as the lower balcony since their instruments were not projecting outward, but rather toward the backs of the first violins.

“Daylight” arrived in the final movement amidst a shimmer of beautiful golden sound, and the full glory of the CSO brass section. The transitions between phrases were remarkably beautiful here, and the orchestra swelled and basked in its full power and perfection. Haitink and the orchestra were thanked with continuing waves of applause, necessitating several well deserved curtain calls.

Conductor Bernard Haitink led the CSO in a largely brilliant reading of Mahler's monumental Seventh Symphony at Symphony Center on April 9 (photo by Todd Rosenberg).

Disparate Movements of Mahler 7 Gel Under Haitink's Baton


By Kathryn Bacasmot