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MAHLER : Eighth Symphony
Janice Watson, Christine Teare, Gillian Keith, (sopranos) Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Susan Parry (mezzo-sopranos) Kim Begley (tenor), Phillip Joll (baritone) and Matthew Best (bass baritone) Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Clio Gould (Leader), John Birch (Organist), London Philharmonic Choir, London Symphony Chorus, London Chorus, Brighton Festival Chorus, London Childrenís Choir, Daniele Gatti (conductor), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, London, 15.9.06 (AO)

 

 

 

Anyone can "audit" music but real listening goes deeper, into the "soul" of how music works. What Mahler achieved in his music was innovative, in that he consciously rejected opera, but found in symphonic form a means of making music as theatre. He expanded the listening experience without the need for narrative and costumes. Itís significant that he supported Alfred Rollerís revolutionary new ways of staging Wagner which emphasised the spirit of the music not the props. Sadly, thatís a battle still raging a hundred years later. Experiencing Mahler live is so different from listening to a recording, even a good live recording. Itís not "just" sound, but something altogether more complex. Experiencing Mahler as theatre illuminates what the composer must have imagined, because he wrote long before the ethos of the recording age shaped the way we hear music.

 

The Eighth Symphony is the most theatrical of his works, yet isnít frequently performed because of the vast forces involved. The sheer logistics of organising such a large number of performers is daunting. The Royal Albert Hall is an ideal venue, since the very design of the building is "theatre in the round" Ė expansive, dramatic, colourful. This was an opportunity for the glorious Royal Albert Hall organ to star, and it did, magnificently.

 

Gatti started off with great attack, the grand organ coming in with a punch, and then the choirs : "Veni Creator Spiritus" followed by very animated brass. As Gatti developed the main themes all appeared to be proceeding well Ė details like the muted bell rang through clearly. Clio Gould, the Orchestraís Leader, is a much loved soloist in her own right. Her contribution is important because she represents a plaintive, lone voice against the massed forces behind her. Her contribution was plangently beautiful, adding a powerfully intimate element, which works against that background.

 

In this first movement, the vocal writing is densely layered, voices weaving and intertwining. Even when the singers are all absolutely top notch, it isnít easy to keep the textures clearly delineated. Here, unfortunately, the intricate tracery of the interplay between voices wasnít nearly as striking as it could have been. The sopranos are supposed to cut through the dense ensemble, but not quite so piercingly that they make you leap out of your seat ! It presaged problems to come later. The choirs, though carefully trained, were somewhat uneven. Admittedly, itís difficult to sustain the same level of intensity throughout, with such large forces, so itís understandable.

 

By the middle of the movement, it seemed that things were slowly beginning to unravel. That critical phrase "Accende lumen sensibus" wasnít light or ascendant, but smothered in overall busyness. There were a few flat notes in the brass. Gatti seemed to be concentrating his efforts on keeping the choirs and soloists on point, assuming, perhaps, that the orchestra knew what they were doing with minimal guidance. I donít envy any conductor with that gargantuan task. It must be like juggling, and needs split second anticipation. Ironically, the very enthusiasm of the performers mitigates against precision. Fortunately, the magnificent organ provided a sonorous pulse that underpinned the whole and kept pace. Then, Mahlerís masterstroke : the brass on stage, were joined by brass high above in the gallery, creating an amazing effect as if the trumpets on earth were joined by trumpets in heaven. This was, as Mahler planned, a moment of real spiritual uplift, so powerful that you forgave the lack of clarity on stage.

 

In the second movement the voices even more disparate and individual. Kim Begley, the great Wagnerian tenor, sang Doctor Marianus with sustained confidence. Catherine Wyn-Rogers, another extremely experienced singer held her poise throughout. She brought to Mulier Samaritania an evenly modulated and warm richness, despite the volume she was singing at. Susan Parry was a last minute replacement for Jean Rigby and did well in the circumstances. Phillip Joll as Pater ecstaticus and Matthew Best, as Pater profoundus, complemented each other well.As Iíd worried earlier, the sharp attacks on high notes in the first movement took its toll on the sopranos, Janice Watson and Christine Teare. Watson had started out well, but by this stage, both were showing the strain. In the case of Teareís Mater Gloriosa, the music around her, harps and harmonium, is filled with richness and beauty, as befits the role, putting even more expectations on her voice. Since the role is fairly big, and a counterbalance to Doctor Marianus, it is a problem which even some of the greatest sopranos have experienced.

The orchestra, however, was more evenly impressive. I had gone to a lot of trouble to get a seat with the best acoustic for this particular symphony, and had worried when the brass overwhelmed in the first part. No such problems now. The balance was good, and I could hear every detail, even the glockenspiel behind the youth choir. The strings in this movement are important as they provide the backbone the organ supplied earlier. Here they showed their professionalism, pulling together behind Gould, as a sort of orchestra within an orchestra, while Gatti concentrated on the other elements. Their playing was radiant - truly the radiance of the heaven to which Faust is received. The woodwinds were lovely too Ė the flutes in particular providing an exquisite entrée to the voices. At one stage the flutes held a note so long and delicious I hoped it wouldnít end. Despite the flat notes early on, the brass too shone, both in ensemble on stage and in the passages where, literally up among the gods, they play with sheer faith.

 

More Mahlerian theatre was to come : Gillian Keith as Una poenitentium, the reborn Gretchen, sang from the organ loft. After all, sheís already in Heaven. Her appearance may be short, but itís critical, for it is she who has redeemed Faust by love. Fortunately she hadnít had to sing at full force throughout, so her notes were pure, clean and ringing, as befits the character. Aqain, Mahler brings back rows of brass up in the gallery, extending the sound world beyond the stage, and filling the whole auditorium with a sense of expansiveness. This is not merely for dramatic effect : itís crucial to the spiritual meaning of the entire symphony. Similarly, the way high and low voice choirs alternate, creates a "stereo" effect which would have been even more striking to audiences in an age before people got used to listening through speakers. It is interpretatively significant, for it underlines the flow between male and female soloists and highlights the concept of Das Ewig-Weibliche, so crucial to the meaning of the symphony. With the Chorus mysticus, led by the sopranos, the themes from Veni Creator Spiritus, are stated again, with great conviction. Orchestra, soloists and choirs seem to explode in celebration. An audience may not know what the words mean, but they can pick up on the intense feeling.

 

Experiencing this symphony live demonstrates how lucidly Mahler planned a theatrical dimension to reinforce his music. He built the symphony around the texts, which heíd chosen with great care, and he was a man of great intellectual probity. He even incorporated the visual imagery of anchorites into his notes, though they are not, of course, translated into music. His audiences would have known the Goethe context as thoroughly as he did, and used their imaginations to expand what they heard. Given our modern habit of focussing on recording, live performance is a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the music itself, and its inner dynamic. Being a performer, Mahler was very aware indeed of the impact of music on an audience, and part of his need to communicate depended on using all resources at his disposal, visual and extra musical as well as pure sound. The Eighth Symphony is a complete experience on many levels.

 

Of course there were weaknesses in this performance, which, given the numbers involved is hardly surprising. The orchestra was good, as were some of the singers, but overall, the sheer logistics mitigated against a detailed vision. But it is such a remarkable symphony that any performance is an experience that can bring insight, and Iím certainly glad to have participated Ė for this work was designed to involve the audience emotionally and imaginatively. Thereís no such thing as a "perfect" Mahler Eighth, nor does there really need to be, if the meaning of the Faust legend has been understood as Mahler intended.

 

Anne Ozorio

 

 

 

 

 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, GŲran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)