London’s Commemoration Of Mahler’s Death Winds Down With Yet Another Performance Of His Eighth Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mahler: Symphony No 8, ‘Symphony of a Thousand,’ Barts Choir, Wimbledon Choral Society, New London Singers, Berkshire Young Voices, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Ivan Setterfield (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London 21.11.2011 (JPr)

Iwona Sobotka (soprano 1), Anna Leese (soprano 2), Grace Davidson (soprano, Mater Gloriosa), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo 1), Máire Flavin (mezzo 2), Peter Hoare (tenor), Jacques Imbrailo (baritone), David Soar (bass).

Marking the centenary of Mahler’s death has involved choral groups across the country combining for more performances of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony than have probably been given during the previous decade. It was in August 1906, with his Seventh Symphony still to be performed, that the composer finished the Eighth, known because of the number of voices involved as the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’. Mahler wrote to Willem Mengelberg: ‘It is the greatest thing I have as yet done. And so individual in content and form that I cannot describe it in words. Imagine that the whole universe begins to sound in tone. The result is not merely human voices singing, but a vision of planets and suns coursing about’. Mahler would have approved of the frequency of these recent Eighth Symphony performances and, of course, the enthusiasm and commitment of those involved, but I doubt whether he would have always enjoyed the musical outcome.

That performances of the Eighth Symphony now must return to being special events is clear from Mahler’s own actions, as for four years he had held back this most complex of all symphonic scores from an increasingly curious world of musicians. For the 1910 première he chose Munich as the proper scene for this significant event and for months before the date of the performance there were long series of choral rehearsals. Mahler was in America and heard by letter of the almost insurmountable difficulties involved in preparing the work and he wrote to Emil Gutmann, the concert promoter, that the project should be abandoned. But Gutmann persisted, so the somewhat incredulous Mahler travelled to Munich for the final rehearsals, convinced he had been involved in a ‘Barnum and Bailey’ affair. However the performance, which took place on 12 September 1910, was the greatest and possibly the only unqualified triumph of his life for one of his own compositions. It must have been equally emotional for those in the audience as it must have been obvious from the conductor’s frailties that Mahler would not have long to live.

The work unites Christian mysticism and pagan pantheism with the universal themes of love and faith. Before assessing the performance I would like to draw on thoughts from David Matthews writings in ‘Mahler and Parsifal’ which are very pertinent to the Eighth Symphony. He writes: ‘The idea that a man can be redeemed by a woman’s self-sacrificing love is, of course, central to Wagner’s operas; it is also an idea that Mahler, as a Wagnerian Romantic, was only too willing to adopt. It was quite natural for him to cast Alma in a symbolic role (a role she was less able to play than Cosima Wagner). For both Wagner and Mahler, the idea has a common origin in Goethe’s Faust, and it was to the last scene of Faust that Mahler turned when, in his Eighth Symphony, he sought to combine the religious aspiration of his earlier symphonies with the human aspiration of the middle-period works in a huge synthesis … Mahler’s conception here of human sexual love as a spiritual force is very different from the orthodox Christian view presented in Parsifal, that redemption is only possible through ascetic self-denial … the conception of the Finale is quasi-operatic and is the nearest Mahler got to writing a Parsifal of his own’.

I write often of the autobiographical nature of Mahler’s compositions and this is something that should be more widely appreciated. I repeat that for Mahler it was Alma who was his ‘Eternal-Feminine’ and that is why the Eighth Symphony is dedicated to her. (For more background to the Eighth Symphony please read here.)

What is the perfect venue for this huge work? The Royal Albert Hall should be, however at the back of the stalls you get some reverberation and now, seated at the front of the arena, the sound was unbalanced in favour of the soloists and at the expense of the massed choral forces. Ivor Setterfield, who directs both the Barts Choir and the New London Singers, seemed – quite rightly – to be more interested in keeping the 500-plus singers in front of him on track. The first movement seemed to rush along at a more impetuous Allegro than the composer intended, bringing its own occasional problems of ensemble and intonation as it all rushed headlong towards its conclusion.

Mahler’s description of this work as one where ‘the experience of the music should be overwhelming, it should leave you feeling, however briefly, that this is unquestionably the greatest piece of music ever written’ was met more by the second movement which created a greater sense of atmosphere. Its heightened mystery brought about mainly through the sparer orchestration, it all slows down a little in places and so there is more spirituality evident. Here there was less sense of the routine from the never-less-than competent Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who began to get some true feeling into their accompaniment to the often exciting wall-of-sound from the choirs.

Due to the size of the performing space and perhaps a certain lack of preparation, the soloists seemed under pressure throughout and some coped better than others. Iwona Sobotka out sang all the other soloists at the start, including her fellow soprano Anna Leese, though her tone was a little unrelenting; she was better when returning as Magna Peccatrix (The Great Sinner). Grace Davidson’s voice soared effortlessly from the organ loft as the Mater Gloriosa, Jennifer Johnston sang well throughout and seemingly made light work of what others found difficult and overshadowed her young mezzo colleague, Máire Flavin. The experienced Peter Hoare replaced the indisposed Andrew Staples and was more at ease by the time he had to invoke the Eternal Feminine. The best singing came from Jacques Imbrailo’s burnished baritone as Pater Ecstaticus and David Soar’s resonant, and clearly Wagnerian, bass voice as Pater Profundus.

Ivor Setterfield relentlessly urged on his forces when a more experienced Mahlerian might have found a little more restraint from time to time. Like many of these performances it was a wonderful achievement from an ardent enthusiast, rather than someone steeped in Mahler. Obviously time is money and another rehearsal or two with the orchestra might have helped communication enormously between all concerned but, with the ‘Mystical Chorus’ at the end sounding exactly right, Mahler won in the end … as it very often does and seemingly against the odds.

Jim Pritchard