Haydn Symphony No. 88 & Mahler Symphony No. 7

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

21st May 2017

thomas_dausgaard M7.jpg

This varied and rich programme chosen and conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, commences with Haydn’s Symphony No. 88.  Completed in 1787, it belongs firmly to the classical era; ordered, harmonious, light hearted and a delight to listen to.  Haydn, considered to be the ‘father of the symphony’ was a friend and mentor of Mozart and to me his music is similarly as joyful and exhilarating.  It is written in four parts, the slow largo movement is considered one of his best, the melody is played by solo cello and oboe to which the whole orchestra reply to at various points.  Brahms after hearing this movement is said to have commented that ‘I want my 9th symphony to sound like this’!  The minuet and trio is evocative of folk music of Hungary, Haydn was born on the border of Austria and Hungary and his father was a keen folk musician.   In the finale the tempo picks up but the music remains dainty and light hearted.  Haydn was known for his good humour and his love of practical jokes.  Perhaps seen by many as lacking the tragic allure of Mozart, his early years were difficult making his own way in music, he was afflicted by smallpox, and his face bore many scars, and he married unhappily to the sister of a woman who he had been in love with.  Obliged to stay with each other, they both took lovers and never had children.  He lived to the age of 77.

Moving forward more than 100 years, the orchestra turned to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 7, a long and complex symphony.  The movements are quite varied but notably with dark undertones.  The night movements were written first, the 1st, 3rd and 5th movements came after a period of composer’s block culminating in a boat trip across a lake where his inspiration at last re-surfaced.  A work of the late romantic era; louder, more dramatic, more atonal, such works continue to be controversial.  However this work despite its challenges is compelling, with genuine melody and subtlety.  The second movement is more subdued with the night music, Mahler compared it to Rembrandt’s ‘the night watch’ a quiet march punctuated by the main theme.  The scherzo continues in a spooky fashion with shrieking motifs, distorted waltzes and mourning strings.  In the 4th night movement the romantic melody is the symphony’s most charming, and yet the darker tones remain.  Mahler used a number of unusual instruments in this movement; a solo mandolin and guitar offer the romantic serenade.  However as with many love themes there is an air of sadness.  The finale picks up in mood and takes on a triumphant air, quite different to the previous movements, Mahler himself described it in the phrase “the world is mine!”.   It is thought from a letter written to his wife around that time that he had begun to recognise the importance of a positive attitude, especially in the context of relationships.  However Mahler had something of an artistic temperament and forbade his wife from composing music, which she was frustrated by. She eventually had a surreptitious affair which Mahler was very upset by and visited Sigmund Freud, who advised him to allow his wife her own musical freedom, which he duly did.  But sadly for him she continued her affair, and we could surmise from his music that his love for her was genuine but frequently overshadowed by his (and her) artistic temperament.  Mahler was born in Bohemia to Jewish parents and died at 51 due to a heart condition.  Following his diagnosis he made some changes to this symphony before it premiered, which may have added to its darker undertones.

Thomas Dausgaard’s love of these two pieces is clearly evident and his enthusiasm and engagement with these pieces and the excellent Scottish symphony orchestra is clearly evident.  I also enjoyed the fact that the works are quite different and from different eras.  The Usher Hall is a lovely venue, classical music is good for the brain, so make sure you check out the BBC Scottish symphony orchestra.

Reviewer : Sophie Younger

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