United Kingdom Mahler Symphony No.8, ‘Symphony of a Thousand’: Soloists, Philharmonia Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, City of London Choir, Schola Cantorum of The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 23.10.2022. (JPr)
Sarah Wegener (soprano) – Magna Peccatrix
Jacquelyn Wagner (soprano) – Una Poenitentium, Gretchen
Regula Mühlemann (soprano) – Mater Gloriosa
Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano) – Mulier Samaritana
Claudia Huckle (contralto) – Maria Aegyptiaca
Vincent Wolfsteiner (tenor) – Doctor Marianus
Benedict Nelson (baritone) – Pater Ecstaticus
James Platt (bass) – Pater Profundus
It is a tale worth retelling how on 12 and 13 September 1910 the first performance of Mahler’s Eighth 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’. There were 171 instrumental players and 858 singers involved and so it really was true on that occasion. There was nothing like that number – chorus of 400 and orchestra of 100-plus – at the Royal Albert Hall and still those involved filled every available space in the choir seats and on the platform.
Mahler’s Eighth stands at the pinnacle of the choral repertoire side by side with Beethoven’s Ninth. I am repeating myself with the background to the work but it is important: 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 the Eighth’s premiere on his Tenth Symphony which would remain unfinished on his death a mere 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 something of an epiphany affording him the opportunity – as an artist – to become enlightened through his art. The more 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 and children’s voices, contains a contrapuntal double fugue march … and ends jubilantly and triumphantly (as in the clunky printed translation) with ‘Glory be to the Father, and to his Son, who rose from the dead and to our Advocate and Comforter for ever and ever.’
Mahler originally envisioned a conventional four-movement symphony but in the end simply 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 and possibly hinting at the opera composer Mahler never lived long enough to be. After a prelude – which reminds the listener of Wagner’s Parsifal – we appreciate that the orchestration is slightly less dense, the soloists are now ‘named’ characters, and everything leads to an extraordinarily life-affirming apotheosis when with a hushed whisper the Chorus Mysticus reveals how ‘The Eternal Feminine draws heavenward’. Mahler considered this to happen through the ‘force of love’ and the ending also seems to affirm that – even though our physical bodies may decay – Spirit is everlasting. If ever music can confirm a ‘faith’ in a ‘higher power’ or to ‘redeem’ a soul (probably in the Wagnerian sense through selfless love) it is this symphony and must have done so for Mahler at this time in his life. He considered the Eighth Symphony to be his ‘most important work’ and ‘greatest achievement’ … and it was the biggest success of his composing life.
That first 1910 performance was recorded as being 85 minutes. This one by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under their music director Vasily Petrenko was barely 77 minutes including a brief pause between the two parts as the soloists moved from the back to the front. Journeys of Discovery is the overarching theme of Petrenko’s London concerts with the RPO. His programmes include works that confront ‘What is it to be human?’ and ‘What is our place in the world?’: Mahler’s Eighth poses those and other existential questions. Sadly I found Petrenko’s Mahler rather rampant, especially in Part I, and overall the symphony lacked the transcendence I hope for, and nor was it the overwhelming experience I was expecting from the forces involved. (I know, of course, that many in the Royal Albert Hall who jumped to their feet as soon as it all ended for a standing ovation will disagree.) On the plus side however, the RPO’s playing sounded wonderfully precise as they joined Petrenko on the musical rollercoaster ride, even though it lacked, for me, the emotion some other conductors have brought to it. Undeniably, there were moments of great refinement and delicacy such as when Mater Gloriosa soars into view in Part II and all the climaxes seemed perfectly shaped.
Perhaps it was my ears – or a leftover of the Royal Albert Hall’s notorious acoustic problem – but Part I was a wall of sound from the soloists and the massed choirs (Philharmonia Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, City of London Choir and two children’s ones). Mahler’s overlapping cries of praise to the Holy Spirit were particularly indistinct on this occasion. I wonder if Petrenko’s tempi were just too brisk, although the contributions of the always reliable Schola Cantorum of The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School and Tiffin Boys’ Choir were exemplary in the circumstances. Words were an issue throughout and it would have helped to have a translation projected on screens around the Royal Albert Hall. Nobody near me was reading it in the programme and the audience would have been able to make more of a genuine connection to all they were hearing if they knew what was actually being sung about.
In Part II especially, the female voices – pure-voiced sopranos Sarah Wegener and Jacquelyn Wagner, rich-sounding mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston and contralto Claudia Huckle – proved far stronger as a quartet than the men (or rather quintet with the radiant Regula Mühlemann’s small contribution as Mater Gloriosa from the organ loft). Sadly, tenor Vincent Wolfsteiner’s Doctor Marianus undermined their excellent work. His singing throughout this Mahler Eighth was blighted by some constricted top notes and his Tannhäuser-like contribution near the end – with his appeal to ‘Jungfrau, Mutter, Königin, Göttin’ (‘Virgin, Mother, Queen, Goddess’) – was not the highlight it must be. Otherwise, baritone Benedict Nelson – a late replacement for the advertised singer – smoothly intoned the paean of Pater Ecstaticus to eternal love and James Platt impressed with his cavernous bass tones as Pater Profundus.
It all ended well with an unearthly Chorus Mysticus; I wish the rest had resonated with me half as much.