Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ is Premiered in Kazan

Russian FederationRussian Federation Mahler: Academic Choir Popov, Academic Masters of Choral Singing of Lev Kontorovich, Academic Boys Choir named after Sveshnikov, Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Sladkovsky (conductor), Saideshev Concert Hall, Kazan, 13.2.2019. (GT)

Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ at Kazan’s Saideshev Concert Hall

Mahler – Symphony No.8 ‘Symphony of a Thousand’

Irina Bozhenko (soprano/Mater Gloriosa )
Veronika Djoeva (soprano/Magna Peccatrix)
Irina Polivanova (soprano/Una poenitentium)
Maria Zaikina (mezzo-soprano/Mulier Samaritana)
Olesya Petrova (mezzo-soprano/Maria Aegyptiaca)
Alexey Tatarintsev (tenor/Doctor Marianus)
Vasily Ladyuk (baritone/Pater Ecstaticus)
Yevgeny Stavinsky (bass/Pater Profundus),

The history of Mahler performance in Russia dates of course to the composer’s own conducting of his symphonies in St Petersburg: following the revolution a series of Mahler Festivals were presented by the Leningrad Philharmonic during which the Eighth Symphony was given its Russian premiere. However, for many years his music was neglected as it was elsewhere, but the revival came with Kondrashin and Svetlanov programming and recording the symphonies. In recent years under their music director, the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra have been gradually developing into their repertoire symphonies by Mahler and Bruckner. Last year after he conducted the first performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony in Kazan, Sladkovsky told me that he intends to record all the Bruckner and Mahler symphonies after performing them here in Kazan and in their Moscow subscription series. This season, they have already performed Das Lied von der Erde in Kazan. Certainly their recordings on Melodiya of Symphonies Nos. 1, 5 and 9 were impressive and Sladkovsky has a firm conception of the Austro-German symphonic repertoire and with his highly disciplined symphony orchestra, his voice will prove to be of interest. I was enormously grateful for this invitation to attend this rather special concert at short notice after hearing the TNSO in Nantes only two weeks ago (review click here).

To perform the mighty ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ for the first time here in Kazan was a challenge certainly for all the soloists and the choirs from Moscow; and indeed to fit them all on stage at the Saydeshev Concert Hall must have been taxing. (Sladkovsky had invited his eight solo singers from the Bolshoi Theatre and the New Opera Theatre in Moscow). However, the wonderful great organ and the admirable acoustic qualities of the hall could only benefit such a performance. The boys choir occupied the upper balcony whilst the ‘offstage’ brass players were in the opposite balcony on the other side of the organ. The extended orchestra were in front of the mixed choirs, with soloists on either side of the conductor.

That Sladkovsky loves the narrative in symphonic music is underlined by his recordings of Shostakovich and Mahler; reviews of his recordings of the Shostakovich orchestral works (all concertos and symphonies) have earned the highest praise. There is nothing sensational in his interpretations, but his views are firmly determined from in-depth study of the scores. Rather than adopt an accepted manner in judging a new work, he prefers to explore a new approach.

In the great opening movement of Part I, the conductor implemented a firm line from the chords of the organ and the great chorus ‘Veni, veni creator spritus’, reinforced by glorious playing from the enlarged brass section. The soprano Victoria Djoeva’s meditative ‘Imple superna gratia’ was beautifully sung before being joined by the soloists exploring the reflective theme with the mixed choirs, their Latin was wholly correct. There emerged a feeling that I was not listening to Russian performers at all, but a first-class choir and orchestra from central Europe entrenched in the Austro-German tradition. Certainly this orchestra have instruments from Italy and Germany, so it is unsurprising their velvety bloom in sound is European rather than Slavic. The orchestra leader Alina Yakonina was outstanding in her virtuoso solo violin passage, and again in the second great movement. The boys’ choir’s ‘Gloria sit Patria Domino’ was splendidly lyrical prior to glorious brass from the ‘off stage band’ with ‘Accende lumen sensibus’ leading to the mixed choruses and orchestra’s triumphant conclusion. The singing from the soloists and choruses was simply magnificent, especially the ladies’ choir, helped by the acoustics of the hall, the solos were impeccably sung particularly the mezzo-soprano, the tenor and baritone with perhaps the soprano of Djoeva the stand-out of all the singers.

In Part II, there was an atmosphere appropriately filled with suspense in the orchestra handsomely evoking a lonely mountainside while the entry of the chorus was ghostly and mysterious and marvellously controlled with trumpets thundering following the solo of Vasily Ladyuk’s Pater Ecstaticus and then the challenging solo by the bass soloist Yevgeny Stavinsky as Pater Profundus leading to the childrens’ and womens’ choruses and their enlightened passage as they bear the soul of Faust. The festive mood was evident with the chorus ‘Jauchzet auf!’ and the fine Heldentenor of Alexey Tatarintsev as Doctor Marianus singing rapturously with the mixed choruses ‘Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinn’ followed by fabulous tremolos by the violas demonstrating the metier of the strings. The sustained harmonium chord in E major heard by arpeggios on the harps and pianissimo violins were the most revelatory sections of the entire work, the ‘love’ theme – so succinctly defined by Mahler’s biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange. The orchestral passage of a string quartet, woodwind, harps, harmonium, piano and celeste led this magical passage to the finale – as the composer himself wrote – ‘like a breath’ hushed in beauty. It was difficult not to feel a tear come to one’s eyes.

One had the impression as if we were being slowly transported from the earth into the cosmos, and ever so slightly glancing back on the world we have just departed. With the entire orchestra and mixed choirs’ slowly rising ‘Chorus mysticus’ sounding out in celebratory triumph, Sladkovsky – the hero of this great performance – brought the symphony to its grandiose climax. The glorious final bars were met with a great burst of applause and many giving a standing ovation among the capacity audience.

This terrifically exciting performance underlines how fortunate people in Kazan are to have this world-class orchestra in their midst and what a great conductor they have in Alexander Sladkovsky.  He has trained and developed this group of musicians into an ensemble which can perform the great Austro-German masters at the highest level. One must mention the excellent solos from the orchestra; the trumpet of Denis Petrov, Sergey Antonov (horn), Ruslan Valeyev (trombone), Venera Porfirieva (flute), and Artur Mukhametshin (clarinet). With such virtuoso musicians, the ensemble playing of the TNSO is enhanced immeasurably.

One important element in the conducting of this performance was Sladkovsky’s truthful use of the ‘luftpause’ in his reading; the key essential for understanding and performing Mahler’s heavily annotated scores. Following this concert, the orchestra were scheduled to give a repeat performance with the same choruses and soloists at the new Zaryadye Concert Hall in Moscow. I understand that Sladkovsky intends to record all the Mahler symphonies, and based on this evening, Melodiya should sign him up for a cycle quickly before someone else jumps in first.

Gregor Tassie

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