Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall – Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Mahler 7 – Karen Gargill sings Alma Mahler

Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall – Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Mahler 7 – Karen Gargill sings Alma Mahler

In a program showcasing music by the Mahlers, Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Philadelphia Orchestra in the former’s Seventh Symphony, preceded by four elusive songs by his wife (née Alma Schindler) in skillfully crafted 1995 arrangements by Colin and David MatthewsWith their angular melodies and abrupt modulations, the highly romantic pieces are reminiscent of Alexander Zemlinsky, Alma’s teacher and lover before she married Gustav. The similarities were most evident in the richly chromatic ‘Die Stille Stadt’. As sung by Karen Cargill it sounded sublimely soft and contemplative. Her seductive and dusky mezzo-soprano was louder and more energetic in ‘In meines Vaters Garten’, the longest song here, and her interpretation of ‘Laue Sommernacht’  was more somber and reflective than the also peaceful if relatively lighthearted ‘Bei dir is est traut’. Nézet-Séguin elicited superb accompaniments, never overshadowing the singer, with the woodwinds making the most of the many shades of light and dark in the Matthews brothers’ orchestrations.

With Mahler’s Seventh, the result was more mixed. Perhaps the most orchestrally innovative of the composer’s Symphonies, the moody and enigmatic work features a complex tonal structure and employs numerous instruments, sometimes pushing them to extremes – from the piercing sounds of trumpet and violins at the very top of their upper registers in the first movement to the swoony contributions of the guitar and mandolin in the fourth.

While the orchestra played beautifully for him, Nézet-Séguin’s approach seemed at times detached from the music, especially in the lengthy first movement, as if he wanted to get through the work as quickly as possible. The playing was clear enough – the tenor horn solo at the opening sounding especially eloquent – but as the shadowy, elegiac music gave way to a faster tempo there was insufficient contrast between the darker, deathlike passages and the more celebratory moments. Conversely, the two ‘Nachtmusik’movements that frame the central Scherzowere totally charming. In the first, the section with bird-calls, cowbells, and horns sounding across the valleys was sublime in its refinement, and the lyrical second – Andante amoroso and scored for reduced orchestra with a rather idiosyncratic use of a harp, mandolin and guitar – came across as a graceful Italian serenade. The somber and sinister Scherzo made a characterful impression, and in the unruly Finale, Nézet-Séguin successfully guided the musicians through the jumble of moods and allusions, seamlessly connecting the dots, and ending on a resplendently triumphant note with orchestral bells and a reappearance of the cowbells.

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