Pieces of the Eighth as Maazel Ends His 2011 London Mahler Cycle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Symphony No.8 ‘Symphony of a Thousand’. Sally Matthews (soprano), Ailish Tynan (soprano), Sarah Tynan (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Anne-Marie Owens (mezzo-soprano), Stefan Vinke (tenor), Mark Stone (baritone) and Stephen Gadd (bass), Philharmonia Chorus,BBC Symphony Chorus, Boys of the Eton College Chapel Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra, Lorin Maazel. Royal Festival Hall,London, 9.10.2011. (JPr)

On 12 and 13 September 1910 the Exhibition Hall, Munich was bulging at its seams as a prematurely aged and ailing composer-conductor meandered to the podium to conduct one of his works in public for the very last time. It was Gustav Mahler … and the work was his Eighth Symphony.  A little over 101 years later – a stooping, loping, venerable, elegantly-suited maestro came to platform in another bulging hall to conduct this very same work at the conclusion of a meandering and often controversial Mahler Cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra. This was Lorin Maazel and he will soon be 82: even though 80 is the new 70 – think Tony Bennett, Sir Bruce Forsyth and Clint Eastwood among many – some of his performances have seemed to critics ‘prematurely aged’ in their own right.

Mahler’s first performance of his Eighth Symphony was the object of perhaps one of the earliest and most successful PR stunts when the title ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ was invented for it by a concert agent. Apparently there were 171 instrumental players and 858 singers involved and it does not seem such a ‘tall-tale’ after all. There was nothing like that of course at the Royal Festival Hall where the combined forces of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus,BBC Symphony Chorus, Boys of the Eton College Chapel Choir and seven soloists filled every available space of the choir seats and platform. I overheard some comments about placing of the soloists as separate groups in the corner at the back behind the orchestra and possibly it does unbalance their contribution. Maybe I was more conscious of the weakness of the male singers because I was sitting on their side and perhaps the female singers, further away, might have uniformly sounded better than they may actually have been. Too many years ago than I care to remember I sat behind Jon Vickers singing from the corner of the platform but whether that was something operatic or a choral symphony I cannot recall.

Mahler’s Eighth – along with Beethoven’s Ninth – stands at the pinnacle of the choral repertoire. Mahler himself, though nearing the end of his life, had seemed, with this work, to have overcome the darkness of his Sixth and Seventh Symphonies but was clearly still in despair as he worked all the summer before this work’s première on his Tenth Symphony, that would remain unfinished on his death some eight months later. The Eighth Symphony had an unbelievably short genesis in that 1906 summer and as Mahler explained ‘The Spiritus Creator took hold of me and shook me and drove me on for the next eight weeks until my greatest work was done.’ Undoubtedly Mahler treated it as an epiphany, an opportunity for an artist to become enlightened through his art. A classical Part I is based around a Latin hymn ‘Veni, creator spiritus’ that entreats the creator spirit, involves a choral outburst, develops through the introduction of the soloists, contains a contrapuntal double fugue march, children’s voices … and ends jubilantly and triumphantly (as in the printed translation) with ‘Glory to the Father and Lord, and to the Son, who from the dead was raised up, and to the Holy Spirit, from centuries to centuries.’

Mahler coupled this with a looser Part II setting of the final scene from Goethe’s Faust, employing ideas used by music drama. This orchestration is much sparer, the soloists are now ‘named’ characters, and everything leads to an extraordinarily life-affirming apotheosis as from a potently hushed whisper the choruses reveal how ‘The Eternal Feminine draws us on.’ Our physical bodies may decay but the Spirit is everlasting it seems to say, as the brass echoes once again the ‘Veni, creator’ hymn with which the work opened. If music ever had the opportunity to confirm a ‘faith’ in a ‘higher power’ or to ‘redeem’ a soul (probably in the Wagnerian sense through selfless love) it should be this Symphony – and must have done so for Mahler himself in what was very much the ‘eye’ of a gathering storm in his all-too-short life.

That first 1910 performance was timed at about 85 minutes and based on Maazel’s previous lingering approach to Mahler the 80 printed in the programme was clearly wishful thinking. When asked about it I said it would be a minimum of 95 and it eventually ‘came in’ at about 97. This was again much too long for a work that seems perfectly designed to resist directorial fussiness of the Maazel kind. However whilst there was a good deal of grandeur and beauty in the sounds we heard there was also much fastidiousness and bombast. Through being dragged out in places the work failed to have the irresistible sweep to an irrepressible conclusion that it often can have and as a result it all seemed a series of individual moments, some compelling and some underwhelming. At least in an auditorium with a proper acoustic some of the detail in this work could be appreciated more than in the cathedral venues (and Royal Albert Hall) where it is more often heard … again and again when the reverberation is endless!

Part of the problem may have arisen from the solo singing from eight artists whose achievements can be summed up as women mostly good, men much less so. The combined choruses seemed overextended in Part I when the sopranos were a bit shrill and the deeper men’s’ voices somewhat shouty and overall it was all a bit blustery, with much of the ensuing counterpoint occluded by Maazel’s approach.

Something a bit more dramatically engaging arrived at last with the opening of Part II and even if Maazel deconstructed the music once again when given the chance to dwell on it, there was an elegiac feel to these Wagnerian passages that mimic the Prelude to Parsifal ActIII and – especially as approached this way -Mahler’s own irregular heartbeat at this time in his life. As in Part I matters continued to be uneven amongst the vocal soloists. The wonderful mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly sang throughout with refined tone and impeccable phrasing as the Samaritan Woman, Ailish Tynan was suitably bright-toned as the Penitent (Gretchen), and they were supported by the generally-reliable Anne-Marie Owens and Sally Matthews. Sarah Tynan was a radiant Mater Gloriosa singing her brief contribution from a box high up in the Festival Hall.

Throughout, the men (Stefan Vinke, Mark Stone and Stephen Gadd) all struggled somewhat and Vinke, in particular, continues to be a considerable concern considering his involvement in the forthcoming Covent Garden Ring Cycles. Unless he is suffering from temporary vocal difficulties or tiredness, he will be unable to sing Siegfried if this is the best he can do. Vinke struggled throughout with the tessitura and consistently failed to sing with sufficient volume, to pitch notes properly or to complete a vocal line without breaking it up. I hope before too long he returns to the form he had when I first saw him as Rienzi in Leipzig.

The Philharmonia Orchestra gave Lorin Maazel another polished performance as it has throughout his Mahler Cycle when I have been listening. (Sadly, ten minutes from the end of the concert one of the bass players fainted on stage and fell from her seat to the floor, she and her instrument were quickly whisked away but thumbs up signals in the orchestra after the concert suggested that all was well.) Maazel’s reading was focused, dignified but still much too dissected: perhaps it was me but the offstage brass seemed also to get lost in the orchestral melée. Nevertheless when vigorously cueing a climax towards the end of the Symphony the conductor threw his head back and thrust out his arms, his feet leaving the podium as he leapt upwards. This typical image will be a lasting memory from this Mahler Cycle and briefly I stood up at the end and joined the standing ovation from some of the audience – not so much for his Mahler, but I guess more for Maazel’s longevity.

Jim Pritchard