CBSO’s Mahler Eighth Symphony takes Birmingham by storm

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Soloists, CBSO Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Children’s Chorus, University of Birmingham Voices, Baltimore Choral Arts Society, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 18.1.2020. (JQ)

CBSO’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (c) Andrew Fox

Mahler – Symphony No.8 in E-flat

Erin Wall (soprano – Magna Peccatrix)
Natalya Romaniw (soprano – Una poenitentium)
Katja Stuber (soprano – Mater Gloriosa)
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano – Mulier Samaritana)
Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano – Mater Aegyptiaca)
A J Gluckert (tenor – Doctor Marianus)
Roland Wood (baritone – Pater ecstaticus)
Morris Robinson (bass – Pater Profundus)

I think I’m right in saying that to date Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has conducted three Mahler symphonies with the CBSO. Earlier in her tenure as Osborn Music Director she led performances of the First and Fourth symphonies. I missed those concerts but I was impressed with her handling of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony in June last year (review). The Second Symphony is a major test of any conductor but the Eighth, with its vast forces and even more unconventional design, presents even greater challenges.

The CBSO had billed this concert using the nickname which some have bestowed on the symphony: ‘Symphony of a Thousand’. I’m sure there weren’t quite that many performers onstage tonight but even so a roster of performers numbering several hundred had been assembled. All of the CBSO’s choruses were on hand to lend their voices and two guest choirs had also been enrolled: one was a local ensemble, the University of Birmingham Voices, but the other guests, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society had travelled a long way to take part.

Mahler’s Eighth is a massive logistical and musical undertaking – and an expensive one, too – so opportunities to experience it live are relatively rare. I’ve only heard it once in Symphony Hall, one of the handful of UK concert halls that can truly do justice to the work. That occasion was a blazing performance in 2002 in which Sir Simon Rattle conducted the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. On that occasion the forces were so massive that they spilled over into the auditorium. Two years later Rattle returned to Symphony Hall, this time to conduct the CBSO in the work. I missed those concerts but fortunately they were recorded and  issued as a commercial recording by EMI (review).

As a ‘big occasion’ work it was a fitting choice as part of the CBSO’s two-season celebration of their centenary. Richard Bratby, author of a recent absorbing history of the orchestra (review) contributed a fascinating note in the programme which recounted an extraordinarily ambitious plan for what was then the City of Birmingham Orchestra to give the British premiere of the symphony in 1921, just a year after the orchestra’s foundation. The enterprise was the idea of the CBO’s founding conductor, Appleby Matthews but, as Mr Bratby suggested in his book, quite possibly Matthews hadn’t actually seen the score when he conceived his plan. The venture was still born, and it wasn’t until 1978 that the orchestra played the symphony; that was in Worcester Cathedral as part of the Three Choirs Festival. Since then, the CBSO has performed this vast symphony just a few times in Symphony Hall.

The extended stage was full to overflowing and so numerous were the singers that some of the ladies of the chorus were accommodated in the side seats of the hall’s circle so that those of us in the stalls below almost experienced surround-sound!

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla plunged headlong into Part I, a setting of the hymn ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’. The opening few minutes were thrillingly impulsive and when the music relaxed somewhat for the first entry of the septet of soloists there was no loss of momentum. Usually, one only gets a view of the conductor with his or her back to the audience. However, on this occasion, with singers placed also on her left and right, Ms Gražinytė-Tyla had to turn sideways at times in order to direct then. I noted with approval the care and clarity with which she directed those singers and I’m sure that will have been true of her approach to all the other performers.

At ‘Accende lumen sensibus’ the music was impelled forward as a veritable torrent of sound, as it needs to be. There’s a huge amount going on in passages such as this but the wonderful acoustics of Symphony Hall – and the incisiveness of the performers – meant that these very fully scored episodes still had clarity. And, my goodness, it was exciting! The arrival back at the opening music, ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’, was a tremendous moment and the closing pages of Part I were positively elemental. Part I of the symphony fairly flashed by in some 23 minutes though I never felt that the approach was excessively hasty. I was full of admiration for the discipline and precision exhibited by the choirs and by the orchestra and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s committed conducting must have been inspirational.

At the start of Part II, the setting of most of the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust, the long orchestral introduction first painted an aural picture of a spare, unworldly landscape. The later passionate outbursts in this section were impulsively ardent. In Part II of the symphony the vocal soloists get individual solos and it’s easier to get an idea of their individua contributions than is possible in the huge ensemble that constitutes Part I. Roland Wood was very convincing in the Pater ecstaticus solo, deploying his good, firm baritone to excellent effect. The American bass, Morris Robinson is a physically imposing presence, and in the Pater Profundus solo he demonstrated an equally impressive vocal presence. The high-lying stretches of this big solo held no difficulties for him, and he projected the solo dramatically and strongly.

When the concert was originally announced the advertised tenor was Joseph Kaiser. I don’t know how recently the American A J Gluckert took his place but he proved to be a fine addition to the cast. Mahler makes cruel demands on his tenor throughout the symphony – the tessitura is often punishing – but Mr Gluckert’s strong, ringing voice was a decided asset. I thought a little more might have been made of ‘Höchste Herrscherin der Welt!’; this was an occasion when I felt the conductor could and should have allowed her singer more space to relax into the phrase. However, Gluckert’s singing of it was suitably ardent. A few minutes later he made a fine job of ‘Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinne’, and towards the end of the symphony I really enjoyed his delivery of ‘Blicket auf’, though once again I wish he’d been set a slightly more expansive tempo from the rostrum.

Among the ladies, Karen Cargill brought her great experience to the role of Mulier Samaritana, offering warm, expressive singing throughout. The second mezzo, Mater Aegyptiaca, has slightly less to do. I liked Alice Coote’s contributions when the vocal line lay in the middle and lower compass of her voice but in the higher-lying passages I thought I detected something of an edge to the tone which was slightly less appealing. I was very taken with the contributions of Natalya Romaniw; her singing at ‘Vom edlen Geisterchor umbegen’ was particularly pleasing. The first soprano part is an unenviable assignment; in both Part I and Part II Mahler is almost cruel to his singer, requiring her to sing time and again both loudly and very high. Erin Wall tacked the role heroically though, perhaps understandably, she seemed under pressure at times. Nonetheless, her voice cut through clearly and dramatically at the big moments, despite all the musical tumult surrounding her. Towards the end of Part II, the small but telling role of Mater Gloriosa was beautifully sung by Katja Stuber. What an exposed moment this is. Singing from on high and out of sight to the conductor’s right, Ms Stuber’s voice carried with ethereal purity.

The chorus work was terrific throughout. The massed choirs gave their all in the tumultuous passages of Part I and made a thrilling sound. Just as impressive – indeed, arguably more impressive – was their incisive singing in the more delicate passages. Thus, the soft singing at the start of Part II was as precise as one could wish; what a pity, though, that there were so many coughs from the audience during this section. The Birmingham branch of what my colleague Mark Berry has so rightly christened the Bronchial Terrorists were much in evidence hereabouts. The ladies were marvellous as the Angels in Part II, singing with freshness, rhythmic exactness and finesse. A special word of praise must be given to the young singers of the CBSO Youth Chorus and CBSO Children’s Chorus. As ever, their platform discipline was first rate and their singing was confident and precise. The CBSO’s young singers always deliver the goods in my experience and they did so again tonight. All in all, the chorus contributions showed how scrupulously they had been prepared by their respective chorus masters. Superbly prepared by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO, the choir’s entry at ‘Alles Vergängliche’, hushed but distinct, was a spine-tingling moment.

The CBSO itself, led tonight by Eugene Tzikindelean – when, oh when is the orchestra going to appoint a new permanent leader? – was on top form. Mahler’s teeming score must be fraught with difficulties, even for seasoned professionals, but the CBSO is a top-class ensemble and confirmed that status with this performance. When they were playing at full-tilt the sound was supremely exciting but, as with the chorus, I was at least as impressed with their delivery of the many subtle episodes. At the very end, as the orchestra alone tops out Mahler’s vast symphonic edifice, extra brass players, situated high above the platform to the conductor’s right, were added to the mix to increase the splendour even more.

Galvanising her massive forces throughout the evening, this was a personal triumph for Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. She is invariably a bundle of energy on the rostrum and that’s what’s needed with a big, theatrical work such as this. She tackled the vast score head-on and met its manifold challenges. It must be a formidable technical test to weld all the forces together but, so far as I could tell, she was wholly successful in this  True, there were one or two occasions when I would have liked just a bit more breadth in the tempo but against that must be set the white-hot energy and sheer conviction of the performance. And I mustn’t give the impression that the success of the performance was simply a question of the conductor’s technique. I was thrilled by Ms Gražinytė-Tyla’s impulsive way with Part I. As for Part II, it seemed to me that she conducted this long discursive movement in one sweeping whole, which is no mean achievement. She clearly had a vision of the symphony – and an exciting one at that – and it seemed to me that she communicated that to everyone on the platform and, by extension, to the capacity audience in the hall. Thanks to her enthusiasm and musicianship, and the skill and commitment of all the players and singers, Mahler’s extraordinary symphony took Birmingham by storm.

This was a tumultuous evening in Symphony Hall and the audience responded with a vociferous ovation with many people on their feet. This was no less than the performance deserved. All concerned must have been drained – yet exhilarated – but they had it all to do again the very next evening before another sell out audience.

John Quinn

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