The TSO’s performance of Mahler’s Seventh led by Sir Andrew Davis on Wednesday night left us with more questions than answers.
Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Louis Lortie (soloist) at Roy Thomson Hall. May 15. Repeats May 16. Details, here.
Not all symphonies get me out of the house as reliably as Mahler’s Seventh, a 75-minute compendium of chaotic themes, neurotic rhythms and exuberant colours that is easy to admire but wickedly difficult to understand. I am not sure I know M7 any better after hearing the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performance led Wednesday evening by Sir Andrew Davis. The repeat Thursday will probably go better, to say nothing of the concert Tuesday in the Maison symphonique in Montreal.
Of course, the TSO is the TSO, so certain basics were intact, including stalwart fanfares and decent solos by the principal horn and trumpet (and a few of their allies). But much of the sonority, and therefore the rhetoric, was pitched at the treble end of the spectrum and a good deal of Sir Andrew’s energetic circle-drawing seemed aimed at keeping the music moving rather than underlining any of its peculiar post-romantic qualities.
Violins were numerous (the total musician count was 100) but low on fibre. We would never guess the Nachtmusik title of the second movement. The Scherzo was pushed rather than self-propelling, its Trio section oddly bland. There was some easygoing charm in the penultimate movement (with its traces of mandolin and guitar) but only the uncomplicated, full-blast optimism of the finale got what sounded like its interpretive due.
The first of five movements opens with a solo for something Mahler called the tenor horn. The unfortunate expedient on this occasion was to ask the principal trombone to play a tenor tuba, in effect doing double duty, with an extra trombone standing by. When the Seventh was last given in Roy Thomson Hall, by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in 2014, Kent Nagano hired a specialist.
This was not Davis’s first crack at the Seventh with the TSO. He programmed it as music director in 1980 and 1985. There was also a charismatic TSO performance in 1965 under Hermann Scherchen, which is found on YouTube. Remarkable the difference 54 years can make — in reverse!
The brief first “half” of this concert started with a revival of one of the TSO’s 2017 “Sesquies”: Chan Ka Nin’s My Most Beautiful, Wonderful, Terrific, Amazing, Fantastic, Magnificent Homeland. The composer seemed determined to pack a lot of syncopated rhythm (and a reference to O Canada) into his allotted time. Then came Franck’s Symphonic Variations with Louis Lortie, an old friend of the TSO, at the piano.
The start was strong: Warm, vigorous strings contrasted with thoughtful soliloquies from the soloist. Unfortunately, the 16-minute piece does not sustain itself well. Cellos seemed only vaguely interested in their assignment. Maybe things will pick up in Montréal.