Pouring light on Mahler’s nocturnal Seventh


Pierre Boulez, conductor emeritus of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez, conductor, at Orchestra Hall.

It was hard to know what to admire most about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s eloquent and evocative turn through Mahler’s Seventh Symphony on Oct. 14 at Orchestra Hall: the sheer intellectual virtuosity of the composer, the front-to-back brilliance of the orchestra or the illuminating mastery of conductor Pierre Boulez.

However you measure it, this Mahler – a hastily determined replacement for the Cherubini “Requiem” that ailing CSO music director Riccardo Muti was to have conducted – surely will prove a season highlight irrespective of what wonders may await in programs to come.

Boulez and the CSO gave a magical performance that captured not just the technical finesse of Mahler’s grand scaled, minutely inflected work but also its poetic mystery and the many connections to its antecedents in the composer’s creative evolution.

The Seventh Symphony, written in 1904-05, might be viewed as a spiritual ascent from the despair of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor, composed two years before. In its five-movement layout, the Seventh also harkens back to the Fifth Symphony, and in its skittering shadows and lyrical nocturnes even recalls the folk-music inspiration of Mahler’s earliest symphonies and the songs of “The Youth’s Magic Horn.”

It’s almost ironic that Mahler designated the Seventh Symphony’s second and fourth movements as serenades (literally Nachtmusik I and Nachtmusik II), for the unbroken sweep of the first four movements registers as music of the night. And Boulez, in his undemonstrative but pointed fashion, charged these tableaux, moonlight streaked and haunting, with a chiaroscuro intensity worthy of Delacroix.

The Seventh calls for an outsized orchestra, from heavy brassworks and a big wind choir to a wide assortment of percussive instruments. Yet between the darkling tumult of an expansive opening movement and a sunburst finale wrought in dazzling counterpoint, that grand army is deployed mostly in the commando squads of chamber music.

Boulez’s precise voicing, and the orchestra’s impeccable response, produced a nightscape of supernatural beauty across the three middle movements – and especially in the central scherzo, a marche macabre fraught with impulsive syncopations against yearning lyricism.

But the CSO also generated plenty of firepower when it was needed, in the brassy fanfares of the opening movement and again in the finale’s life-affirming contrapuntal riot.

As setup and foil to the Seventh Symphony, Boulez offered Webern’s Passacaglia, Op. 7. Written in 1908, the year the Mahler Seventh received its premiere, Webern’s formally framed essay seems at this distance quite romantic, even reminiscent of Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” of nearly a decade before. The CSO gave the Passacaglia a disciplined, radiant performance.

Yet, in this intriguing matchup, it was Mahler who emerged the modernist.

Repeats at 3 p.m. Oct. 17. www.cso.org. Call (312) 294-3000.

The concert was recorded for airing in the PBS television series Great Performances on Oct. 27 at 8 p.m. on WTTW11 and WTTW HD, with a simulcast on 98.7 FM WFMT.  

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Lawrence B. Johnson
Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.