Mahler 7 with the WSO

by Tom Ingram

I have a complicated relationship with Gustav Mahler. For my whole life he’s been in fashion in the classical music world. Recording a Mahler cycle is every conductor’s dream and scarcely a year goes by in any city without at least one performance of a Mahler symphony. Musicians love his works because they’re big and challenging with many impressive moments for the woodwinds and brass, and, not to put too fine a point on it, they almost always require the local symphony to fill out their ranks with freelancers. Audiences love them because they sound like John Williams and audiences pretty much think what they’re told to think.

It wasn’t always this way. In the years following Mahler’s death his works fell into disrepute, largely fueled by anti-Semitism. After World War II he made a comeback, but attitudes toward his music were a little more temperate than today’s abject Mahler worship. Mahler is a great composer, but he’s also a flawed one. As a symphonist he is mid-rank, fluctuating between the top and bottom of the B-list sometimes several times in the same work. His worst tendency is long-windedness.

I know Mahler 7 primarily through the 1970 Kubelik recording, which is 72 minutes long. That’s weighty, but comparable to symphonies by Rachmaninov, Bruckner, and even Beethoven. It’s not unmanageable. Kubelik’s tempos show off Mahler’s best side—the work has a sweeping grandeur of its own, and artificially broad tempos will only distort it.

Last night, at the second performance of the WSO’s Mahler 7 premiere, Mickelthwate took it too slow right from the beginning. True, the first movement begins with a funeral procession, but Jesus Christ, we’ve only got the hearse for an hour, could you please move it along? The solemn and ominous tenor horn call was stretched out to grotesque proportions by this tempo, which was by far the most ill-chosen one of the evening.

The work itself is repetitious, frequently and pointlessly bringing back old themes with scarcely perceptible differences. The fourth movement, while pleasant, is especially bad in this respect. A slow reading will exaggerate this tendency and make Mahler seem even more dreary and German than he already is. While you can’t argue with the playing—the orchestra acquitted themselves well—you can with the music, which is uneven, and the interpretation, which did not play to Mahler’s strengths.

It goes without saying that there was a standing ovation. We’re a long way from the days when Pantages would test out new acts in front of Winnipeg’s ruthless audiences, and these days we’ll stand for anything as long as it ends with a bang (I stood, of course—everyone else was doing it!). There was also a hilariously fulsome review in the paper. But last night’s Mahler was not nearly as good as last year’s, and I think it wouldn’t necessarily end the world if we took a Mahler break for a season or two.