Mahler’s Seventh Symphony was the single work given by the Berlin Philharmonic in the first of their two Proms, a riveting performance under Kirill Petrenko, for whom, one suspects, this most enigmatic of the composer’s symphonies holds considerable significance. In 2018, a year before he took up his post in Berlin, he conducted it with his previous orchestra, the Bayerische Staatsoper, both in Munich and in London, and his live recording (made during the Munich performances), was widely regarded as something of a benchmark that subjected the work to a revelatory re-evaluation. This Proms performance reinforced his reputation as one of the symphony’s outstanding interpreters in a concert of startling brilliance.
Petrenko is wonderfully alert to the fact that ambiguity of expression is fundamental to the work’s impact. No other Mahler symphony demands quite such painstaking attention to instrumental and textural detail in music that seems to resist meaning and hovers in ambivalent territory between dream and nightmare, illusion and reality. A sense of impending fragmentation or dissolution underlies it, and it’s no wonder that some – including Schoenberg, who adored it – saw it as marking the beginning of musical modernism. Two nocturnes flanking a spectral scherzo-cum-waltz form the work’s kernel, their sinister magic superbly captured here in playing of great clarity, with a lustre of tone in the strings, astonishing brass and slithering woodwind solos that were utterly beguiling, but beyond which also lurked a sense of disquiet and dread.
The outer movements were similarly compelling. The first hinted at neurosis with its repeated tips into woodwind shrillness, which offset the lyricism of the second subject and that sudden, extraordinary passage of stillness at the movement’s centre, in which time seems briefly to stand still. The garish light of day ostensibly sweeps away the terrors and fantasies of night in the finale, done with astonishing virtuosity and brilliance.
Yet even here, we were reminded that vestiges of unease lurk behind its jolting shifts in mood and colour, and that Mahler retains the work’s ambiguities right to the end. A stunning performance, every second of it.