Salonen’s Mahler Eighth Disappoints Through Trying Too Hard

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler Symphony No.8: Soloists, Philharmonia Voices, Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Rodolfus Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 26.6.2014. (JPr)

Judith Howarth (soprano): Magna Peccatrix
Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano): Una Poenitentium, Gretchen
Lucy Crowe (soprano): Mater Gloriosa
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano): Mulier Samaritana
Justina Gringyte (mezzo-soprano): Maria Aegyptiaca
Robert Dean Smith (tenor): Doctor Marianus
Roland Wood (baritone): Pater Ecstaticus
Stephen Gadd (bass): Pater Profundus

It is an oft-told tale (especially by me) about how on 12 and 13 September 1910 the first performance of Mahler’s Eight Symphony in the Exhibition Hall, Munich, was one of the earliest and most successful of PR stunts by a concert promoter when he gave it the title ‘Symphony of a Thousand’. Apparently there were 171 instrumental players and 858 singers involved and so it really was true on that occasion. There was nothing like that number at the Royal Festival Hall and still those involved filled every available space in the choir seats and on the platform.

Mahler’s Eighth – and let’s not forget Beethoven’s Ninth – stands at the pinnacle of the choral repertoire. Mahler was nearing the end of his all-too-short life and had seemed, with this work, to have overcome the darkness of his Sixth and Seventh Symphonies yet was clearly still in despair as he worked all the summer before this 1910 première of the Eighth on his Tenth Symphony – the work that would remain unfinished on his death only eight months later. The Eighth Symphony was composed very quickly in the summer of 1906 when 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.’ For Mahler this was almost an epiphany affording him the opportunity – as 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 be 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 originally toyed with the idea of a conventional four-movement symphony but in the end decided on one further movement. So ‘Veni, creator spiritus’ is coupled with a looser Part II setting of the final scene from Goethe’s Faust, in German, something more akin to music-drama. This orchestration is slightly less dense, 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.’ Mahler considered this to happen through the ‘force of love’ and the ending also seems to be an affirmation that although our physical bodies may decay the Spirit is everlasting. 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 at this time in his life. He considered the Eighth Symphony to be his ‘most important work’ and ‘greatest achievement’ … and it was his greatest public success.

None of this was apparent from this performance as, for me, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Mahler was rampant and rather too dispassionate and mechanistic. I know that many in the Royal Festival Hall who jumped to their feet as soon as the symphony ended for a standing ovation will disagree, of course. I was quite close to the front and could see the conductor relentlessly scythe through the air with his baton (almost impaling the leader of the orchestra at one point) and this resulted in a volume and immediacy to the music that pressed me back in my seat and had the person next to me cover one of his ears with his jacket sleeve! On the plus side however, the Philharmonia’s playing sounded wonderfully precise as they joined their principal conductor on a musical roller-coaster ride with seeming enthusiasm.

I am not certain if anything would have made much difference yet the placing of the soloists as separate groups in the corner at the back behind the orchestra does seem to unbalance their contribution. Maybe I was more conscious of the weakness of the male singers because I was sitting on the side of the women and they seemed a far stronger quartet (quintet with Lucy Crowe’s small contribution from on high as Mater Gloriosa). Robert Dean Smith was luxury casting but he struggled like all the soloists to make himself heard when the orchestra was playing at its loudest. For instance, Doctor Marianus’s wonderful Tannhäuser-like contribution near the end building to his appeal to ‘Jungfrau, Mutter, Königin, Göttin  …’ (‘Virgin, mother, queen, goddess’) made little impact where I sat, and earlier Dean Smith sang several lines of an earlier contribution without me hearing a single word until the orchestra quietened. Judith Howarth (Magna Peccatrix), Elizabeth Llewellyn (Una Poenitentium, Gretchen) and Karen Cargill as the Samaritan Woman did have the technique to ride the orchestral tumult on my side of the hall – as I suspect the men would have done had I been sitting on their side.

The combined chorus based on the admirably youthful Rodolfus Choir and the Philharmonia Voices seemed as overextended as all the soloists especially in Part I when Salonen’s tempi seemed a bit too quick for them, as a result, the singing was rather too shouty and all the words rather unintelligible. The contribution of the always reliable Tiffin Boys’ Choir was exemplary in the circumstances.

I have heard Mahler Eights at the Royal Festival Hall before – notably a few years ago conducted by Lorin Maazel (review) – but this time I came away feeling that this massive work struggled to overcome the auditorium’s limitations in size and acoustics. The Royal Festival Hall should have allowed some of the detail in this work to be appreciated more than in the cathedral venues (and Royal Albert Hall) where this symphony is more often heard – sometimes again and again when there is endless reverberation – however on this occasion I was left longing for one of those more cavernous spaces!

Jim Pritchard