With three November performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 at the Kimmel Center plus one in Carnegie Hall, Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra completed a cycle begun six years ago. Mahler did not intend No. 7—from his purely instrumental middle period—as a valedictory, but for Eschenbach that’s what it turned out to be. He left the orchestra in 2008 after five years, the shortest tenure for a music director in its 109-year history.
Other than general references to two movements of “night music”, Mahler supplied no narrative for his five-movement, almost 90- minute work. But it holds veiled stories and bears the arc of a journey. At Carnegie Hall, Eschenbach was a strong, trustworthy guide; orchestral and emotional drama were laid open, and beats were exact so one could listen without the urge to become a backseat driver. Eschenbach does well with long forms, as did Mahler.
Feeling healthy at the time, Mahler described this symphony as cheerful. But if this is cheer, don’t show us agita. The opening section lurches from one unresolved chord to another, with several of the diminished sort found in Hitchcock films. Melodies don’t surface for about 15 minutes—in the low brass, while the strings have angst. Eventually the strings grow passionate, and a languid trumpet floats over rolling timpani.
Among a slew of horn calls, only one was missed in the first Nachtmusik, which takes a slice from the song cycles and has a terrific tiny ending. Eschenbach held the last note and snapped it off smartly. Country themes try to break into the Scherzo’s grotesque motifs but get frozen out with sinister assist from timpani and low brass. Mahler may not have written a program for the symphony, but Eschenbach seemed to know it anyway. The second Nachtmusik with a guitar and mandolin serenade under a violin solo (sweetly played by concertmaster David Kim) held hints that Mahler knew it too, and listeners could almost feel it in the folksy vamping.
Mahler’s private plan is also vaguely discernable in the Wagnerian trumpet-anddrums fanfare that opens the finale. (He had a lot in common with Wagner—musically, that is.) Eschenbach swept away its loud sections to clear space for soft ones. The movement starts in a mood of jolly springtime, like Symphony No. 1, but then it takes a walk in the woods and we lose our sense of key—of home. Eschenbach sustained the penultimate section, not so much ritarding it as pulling it back.
Charles Dutoit, longtime leader of the orchestra’s summer season, is in the midst of a four-year term as chief conductor. Eschenbach’s departure to become music director of the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center is, nonetheless, Philadelphia’s loss. For whatever reason (stories differ), he didn’t fit there. He may be short on old-style suavity and smoothness, but his insight takes listeners into the music. Good wishes to him. LESLIE KANDELL