Celebrating a Stokowski Centennial with the “Symphony of Not Quite a Thousand”

United StatesUnited States Mahler: Soloists, Philadelphia Orchestra, Westminster Symphonic Choir (Joe Miller, director), Choral Arts Society of Washington (Scott Tucker, artistic director), American Boychoir (Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, music director), Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 12.3.2016. (BJ)

 Mahler, Symphony No. 8

Angela Meade, soprano (Magna Peccatrix)
Erin Wall, soprano (Una poenitentium)
Lisette Oropesa, soprano (Mater gloriosa)
Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano (Mulier samaritana)
Mihoko Fujimura, mezzo-soprano (Mater Aegyptiaca)
Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor (Doctor Marianus)
Markus Werba, baritone (Pater ecstaticus)
John Relyea, bass (Pater profundus)

Sometimes, in art as perhaps in certain other human activities, size does matter. “What could be more vile,” Thomas Macaulay pertinently asked, “than a pyramid thirty feet high?”

Though “Symphony of a Thousand” is something of an exaggeration as a nickname for Mahler’s Eighth—there were “only” four hundred or so performers involved in this nevertheless fully staffed performance—but the work’s nickname and its still-exorbitant personnel demands make it inevitable that any concert presentation of the Eighth is regarded as a Big Event.

It is remarkable how significantly a performance can modify one’s opinions about a work. Until this weekend, I had always regarded the Eighth as, in purely artistic terms, the least satisfactory symphony Mahler ever wrote, and I thought Part I much superior to Part II. Under the influence of Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s splendid performance, programmed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Leopold Stokowski’s United States premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra, I still find it a flawed work, with weaknesses both musical and textual, but with the flaws distributed quite differently from the way they stood in my previous judgement.

Looking back on the other performances I have heard, I will start in 1959 with an unforgettable one in London conducted by that supremely great and too often disregarded maestro Jascha Horenstein. I have always felt, perhaps seduced by the sheer organ-backed sonic grandeur of the opening measures, that the Part-I setting of the Veni, creator spiritus hymn was the strongest part of the work, and that the much longer Part II suffered from elements of potential tedium, as well as from the questionable literary merit of its text, the final scene from Goethe’s Faust.

With regard to the latter, I do not presume to question Goethe’s standing as surely the pre-eminent intellect of his day. Yet the amount of pseudo-philosophical claptrap he swallowed and regurgitated in his Faust boggles the mind, while as a poet he stands for me (tell it not in Gath!) decidedly in second place after his friend Schiller. Goethe’s voluminous retelling of the legend of a shadowy 16th-century German necromancer named Georg Faust has had a huge impact on subsequent writers and thinkers. But despite this and all its imaginative force, his poem—with its dewy-eyed evocation of “the Eternal Feminine” and its mawkish assemblage of such characters as Magna Peccatrix, Mater gloriosa, and Pater ecstaticus—is something of a stretch for non-Teutonic readers and listeners to appreciate without reservations.

In dealing with this text, moreover, Mahler produced a score that similarly has its magical elements, but his recourse to endless repetitions of a seven-note figure in a rhythm that may be spelled out as “tum-tum-(short silence)-ti-ti-ti-tum-tum” (largely in the bass register, recurring no fewer than 72 times in the prevailingly slow first quarter of Part II) can rapidly induce boredom. The whole thing, furthermore, is preposterously orotund, and the musical and spiritual effect of its purportedly climactic conclusion—grandiose rather than grand—falls far short of the corresponding truly apocalyptic ending of the composer’s Second (“Resurrection”) Symphony.

And yet, this time around, my view of the comparative virtues of Part I and Part II underwent substantial revision. It may have been the huge number of soft bodies on stage that deprived the strings in particular of hard surfaces to reflect their sound in fortissimo into the auditorium. Whatever the cause, this account of Part I sounded altogether too brassily and indeed thinly aggressive, robbing the music of magic, and making regrettably clear the synthetic character of the thematic materials and their treatment, which proceeds not by true development but by mere mechanistic permutation of notes.

With Part II, on the other hand, and especially with its long, purely orchestral exordium, genuine magic began to predominate. Music director Nézet-Séguin drew such subtlety of phrasing and texture from the orchestra as to obviate any danger of boredom: here that seven-note figure was treated with rare discretion, and the violins, in a dynamic ranging from pp all the way down to pppp, achieved an enchanting delicacy, against which the woodwind entries, equally delicate yet often stabbingly incisive, could make a thrillingly eloquent effect.

By this point it had become clear that the most successful parts of the performance were the quietest passages, and this continued to be the case. Sadly, however, despite all the meticulously prepared clarity and sonorous depth of the various choral forces assembled, and the wonderful singing of a starry group of soloists including the clarion-voiced Stephanie Blythe, it was with the entry of Goethe’s text that my misgivings returned in force.

One point of presentation emphasized the textual problem. Instead of printing a side-by-side text and translation in the program book, so that the audience could have had the opportunity of fully appreciating the linguistic and verbal skills of the singers, the performance was given with only an English translation projected, line by line, on a super-title screen above the assembled forces. This admittedly facilitated instant comprehension of what the words were saying; but in regard to what they meant, having just one short clause at a time before the eyes inevitably casts a merciless light on the platitudinous banality of such pronouncements as “the ineffable here is accomplished.”

And while I’m talking about presentation, let me beg to doubt whether, back in March 1916, anyone from the orchestra’s management came on stage before that notable premiere began and talked about money. Yes, of course, I know they need the stuff. But it seemed to me that orchestra president and CEO Allison Vulgamore’s opening speech, complete with a cutesy little pause to allow her listeners to fill in Leopold Stokowski’s name, was a highly—or rather lowly—inappropriate way to address an audience that was surely there preparing its minds for a lofty artistic experience.

The end of the evening brought the inevitable vociferous standing ovation from a capacity house. It is, after all, impossible to imagine an even half-way successful performance of Mahler’s Eighth that did not draw a standing ovation, and this one was very much more than half-way successful. If, as I have suggested, Mahler’s and Goethe’s rights to such a response were not entirely unmixed, the maestro and his instrumental and vocal forces earned it in full measure.

Bernard Jacobson

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