The Symphony That Should Not Speak Its Name: Mahler’s Eighth Opens Santa Cecilia Season

ItalyItaly  Mahler, Symphony no. 8Manuela Uhl, Christine Brewer, Ailish Tynan (sopranos), Sara Mingardo and Maria Radner (contraltos), Nickolai Schukoff (tenor), Christopher Maltman (baritone), Georg Zeppenfeld (bass), Orchestra, Chorus and Children’s Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale of Santa Cecilia and the China National Chorus,  Ciro Visco and Vijay Upadhyaya (chorus masters),  Antonio Pappano (conductor),  Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome 23.10.2011 (JB)

Vulgarly known as the symphony of a thousand (who’s counting?), Mahler’s eighth symphony has been held up as a model of creative entrepreneurship. Surprisingly, the battle to engage the biggest orchestra did not begin in Texas, but in France with Berlioz, rapidly spreading to Germany with Wagner, Richard Strauss and Mahler. In their defence, all these composers were master orchestrators. It wasn’t just size. They knew their business. That is a smack in the eye for the vulgarity charge. And anyway, Mahler rejected the thousand tag for his symphony.

But before leaving the numbers aside, there are a few which could only appear incongruous at a swift first glance. The Santa Cecilia Orchestra has just finished a Far East tour which took in China (population one billion, three hundred and fifty million) and a concert in Beijing (population a little over nineteen million), where they played at the National Centre of the Performing Arts (capacity one thousand eight hundred and sixty) including three encores. On their return to Rome (population three and a half million) they opened the Accademia’s season with Mahler’s symphony of a thousand in their hall, (seating capacity two thousand, eight hundred) which was full for all three performances.

Being one of those two thousand eight hundred people who received, in an awed silence, the impact of this music, felt like a privilege. Mahler’s Eighth demands a live performance. No recording can hope to do it justice. The listener needs to be enveloped in the music as well as the collective experience. Share it or not, there is a religiosity which is central to this performance: Mahler’s Parsifal, so to speak.

Symphony is something of a misnomer for this work: it might be more aptly called a dramatic oratorio. The spirit is Handel if the dimensions are Berlioz. Many critics have found the spirit incompatible with the dimensions. And they have a point. But even the severest critics have to concede that in those parts where it works, it works uniquely, and even reaches the sublime.

Strangely, the Eighth is much more effective when it whispers than when it roars. I say strangely advisedly: the effect is mystical, a perfectly controlled veiled tone, unique in that it has never been heard before or since. And it really does require massive forces to make its hushed statement. The Santa Cecilia orchestra under their magnificent conductor, Antonio Pappano, positively injected into the bloodstreams of the audience the haunting double bass pizzicatos, the finely-tuned woodwind contributions and the lyrical brass passages. Sound experience like this is not met with every day.

German friends tell me that Goethe’s Faust is untranslatable, partly because it is the maximum achievement of their finest poet. But Mahler, in using the last scene of this play, has succeeded in setting to music what could not be translated into other words. I fancy that the Universal Sage would have approved: words which could say more as well as less than their actual utterance was part of his accomplishment. And through music, Mahler manages to nail the accomplishment to the mast. I recognise there will be dissenters to my use of the word nail here. And they will be right.

The Goethe text is preceded by a brief prelude, a setting of the Latin text, Veni Creator Spiritus. It is misleadingly called Part One. Here, Mahler uses all his available forces at full blast. The penitent before the throne of the Grace of the Almighty has been set many times, before and since. And much better than by Mahler. Just think of the Verdi Requiem. Part one of the Eighth is very simply not worthy to be put alongside Part two. I want to start a campaign to eliminate Part one, which would cut less than fifteen minutes off the hour and a half performance time and better draw attention to the work’s uniqueness. The charge of vulgarity is as perfectly valid for Part one as it is blatantly irrelevant for Part two.

Ciro Visco had prepared his Santa Cecilia Chorus and Vijay Upadhyaya the China National Chorus with admirable attention to detail of tone. Unfortunately, there is no longer any live tradition of training Children’s Choirs in Italy as there still is, for instance in the UK, where thanks to the Cathedrals’ vitality, those schools are alive and well. Children’s voices have a power and expression superior to that of adults. Mahler would have been familiar with the fine Austrian training schools. And this is what he calls for here. Alas, Santa Cecilia failed to provide it. Ciro Visco had indeed trained the Children’s Choir, but he trained them as though they had adult voices. As a result, they sounded puny and underpowered. Just the opposite of what Mahler requires.

Irish soprano Alish Tynan, produced the most appropriately wondrous, ethereal sounds for the Mater Gloriosa at the end of the Goethe drama. I was also struck with the beauty of tone and finely pointed delivery of Manuela Uhl (first soprano), Sara Mingardo (first contralto) and the tenor, Nikolai Schukoff.

All in all, the spirits of Goethe and Mahler were finely evoked.

Jack Buckley