Disappointing Mahler Eighth in Bregenz Despite Kirill Petrenko’s Best Efforts

AustriaAustria Mahler: Sarah Wegener (soprano), Elza van den Heever (soprano), Letizia Scherrer (soprano), Claudia Mahnke (mezzo-soprano), Diana Haller (mezzo-soprano), Norbert Ernst (tenor), Daniel Boaz (baritone), Kwangchul Youn (bass), Salzburger Bachchor, Bregenzer Festspielchor, Children’s Chorus of the Music Middle School of Bregenz, Symphonieorchester Vorarlberg / Kirill Petrenko (conductor). Festspielhaus, Bregenz, 18.5.2019. (JR)

Mahler and Kirill Petrenko

Mahler – Symphony No.8  

Normally, news of an impending performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in the surrounding area would spread like wildfire amongst music-lovers but this one nearly fell below my radar. The work is so rarely performed that Herculean efforts should normally be made to be able to attend – especially if the Chief Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera and designated Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic is conducting. Sadly, it proved to be a rather disappointing evening.

Why should Kirill Petrenko be conducting in Bregenz, you may well ask? Well, it turns out that Kirill’s parents fled Omsk in Russia in 1990 during a particularly virulent bout of anti-semitism following glasnost and they took Kirill, then 18, with them. Kirill’s father was a violinist, his mother a musicologist. Kirill’s father found employment with the Symphonieorchester Vorarlberg in Feldkirch, a town of some 30,000 inhabitants in Austria’s most westerly province, Vorarlberg, which stretches down from the Arlberg massif to Bregenz on Lake Constance. (Interesting footnote: Vorarlberg applied to the Swiss Government in 1919  – and nearly tried again in 2010 – to become part of Switzerland, but was rejected). Young Kirill studied at the Vorarlberger Landeskonservatorium in Feldkirch before progressing to Vienna. In effect, this was a sort of homecoming for Petrenko, who made his operatic conducting debut in 1995 in Vorarlberg with a production of Benjamin Britten’s Let’s Make an Opera. Petrenko is currently undertaking a complete Mahler cycle with the Vorarlbergers.

Mounting any performance of Mahler’s Eighth is a mammoth exercise, even for big name orchestras; and it proved a leap just too far for this minnow of a provincial band. The work was composed in 1907 but it took Mahler three years to raise the necessary funds for the first performance. The venue in Munich had to be changed from an ordinary concert hall to an exhibition hall when the promoters realised the scale of the piece. There were, at the première, 858 singers, members of various choirs, 171 orchestral players and the 8 soloists. The local paper dubbed it ‘The Symphony of a Thousand’, but Mahler never approved this title. He had two conducting assistants (by 1910 Mahler was suffering from heart disease and died within six months of the première). Who were the assistants? Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter, then 25 and 35 respectively.

Mahler did concede that lesser numbers would, in future, be acceptable. He had described this symphony as his most important work; some refer to it as his Mass, but it is far from a religious work. Mahler was muddled about his religion, having had to renounce Judaism and adopt Catholicism for purely professional reasons. He was in his lakeside composition hut in Maiernigg on the Wörthersee in Austria (not his other hut in Toblach, South Tyrol) in 1906 when he stumbled on a Catholic hymnal; he seized on a ninth century hymn for Pentecost ‘Veni, creator spiritus’ and set it to music for the first part of his choral symphony. He thought about developing this in the second part as an ode to Eros but opted instead for the end of ‘Faust’; he was an ardent admirer of Goethe.

This monumental behemoth of a symphony takes an inordinate amount of organisation and finances to mount; and it also needs a bit of luck. Of the eight soloists, two cancelled at short notice. The choirs came from different Austrian cities, far apart, so joint rehearsals would have been impossible until shortly before the actual concert.

Let’s start with some musical positives: Petrenko chose to portray the symphony as a sort of chamber work, perhaps realising that, given the paucity of the forces at his disposal, he really had little choice. It was a coherent reading, with plenty of individual accents; Petrenko had a clear grasp of Mahler’s sound world. However, he had to be somewhat mechanical to keep the forces together.

The soloists – including the two late replacements – were mainly of very high quality, particularly the two main sopranos (Elza van den Heever and the especially impressive Sarah Wegener). The two mezzos were equally fine. I was much less happy with the men. Norbert Ernst probably makes a very decent Loge (Das Rheingold) and David (Die Meistersinger), but his initial contributions to this symphony were distinctly on the weedy side. There was no bloom to the voice, some sounds were downright unpleasant and he sometimes struggled to reach the high notes. There was also an argument over tempo with the conductor at one stage.

Daniel Boaz looked unwell and unhappy throughout the evening, mopping his brow continually. He sounded nervous, though his contribution as Pater Ecstaticus, though far from ecstatic, was commendable enough. Kwangchul Youn looked uninterested in the piece; his bass was effective but colourless.

The negatives really come down to a lack of power and the quality of the orchestra. The hall itself is far from ideal for a symphony of this size; it was designed with opera in mind. When it rains, the outdoor opera being held as part of the Bregenz Festival, is transported inside (this season it’s Rigoletto). There is no proscenium arch but the stage narrows and stretches back quite far, not ideal for any choir, as the sound becomes constricted. I have the advantage of having heard a few Mahler Eights in my time, and actually sung in one (as part of the Highgate Boys Choir, rehearsals accompanied by one young gifted pianist, Howard Shelley). The performance was at the Royal Albert Hall, in around 1965; the acoustics there were far from perfect but still nigh on ideal for a work of this magnitude. (A recording followed, in Walthamstow Town Hall – the conductor was Leonard Bernstein. You can imagine the sound – sadly, the recording is no longer adequate.)

Mahler Eighth Symphony simply has to overwhelm; it has to evoke the mysterious sounds of the supernatural; it has to combine majesty with mysticism. In this performance the opening chorus, ‘Veni, creator spiritus’ went by with barely a whimper, a shadow of its real self. The work feeds on having outsize forces, even if 850 singers nowadays is not a reality. For my money, a chamber-music reading just does not work. I counted a rather measly 150 singers at this performance, plus around 40 children, simply not enough to create the massive sound which Mahler wanted. The choir was often completely inaudible (and I was in the tenth row of the stalls); when I could hear them, I could often not decipher the words.

A Mahler Eight also ought to have a ‘proper’ organ not a tinkly replacement; you have to feel the Earth move. In this performance there were no shivers down the spine when the cymbals brushed each other. The quieter passages with the mandolin did however evoke the charm of Mahler’s Nachtmusik in his Seventh Symphony and the oriental passages from Das Lied von der Erde.

The orchestra did its best but there were too many fluffs for comfort. The army of strings made surprisingly little sound, though their leader Hans-Peter Hofmann was creditable. In their defence, the orchestra is a project-based orchestra made up of a majority of local professional musicians.

The children’s choir were wisely placed front stage but that only meant one could see how little many opened their mouths and how raggedly they sat and stood. As often nowadays, the childrens’ choir consisted mainly of girls. They could not match the standards of the boy choirs of Lucerne, Zurich, Vienna or Tölz.

This is a work that you really have to hear in a decent concert hall, unless you are blessed with speakers the size of fridges and have tolerant or deaf neighbours.

So a rather underwhelming evening – I would, however, travel to hear Petrenko conduct this work again. In Munich or Berlin.

John Rhodes

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