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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Mahler,  Symphony No. 8: Staatskapelle Berlin, Pierre Boulez (conductor), Twyla Robinson, Soile Isokoski, Adrianne Queiroz (sopranos), Michelle De Young, Simone Schröder, (altos), Johan Botha (tenor), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone), Robert Holl (bass), Staatsopernchor Berlin, Philharmonischer Chor Prague, Aurelius Sängerknaben Calw,  Philharmonie, Berlin, 9.04.2007 (AO)

“So far I have employed words and the human voice …….to express symphonically only with immense breadth”, said Mahler of this symphony.  “But here the voice is also an instrument…….used not only as sound, but as the bearer of poetic thoughts”.  Because of its sheer theatrical impact, Mahler 8 is a symphony that will always impress.  However, when a performance engages with the “poetic thoughts” on a deeper level, the effect is infinitely more powerful.  Accende lumen sensibus runs a critical theme in this symphony, referring to the power of the creative spirit to inflame and transform.  The usual translation “kindle our sense with light” doesn’t quite capture the incendiary effect.

This performance was  electrifying, as befits a symphony conceived by inspiration so strong that it seemed to Mahler “like a vision” which struck him “like lightning”, making him write so quickly that the notes seemed to fly onto the page as if they were being dictated.  Boulez makes the music surge ahead powerfully, but not by something as simple as increasing tempi.   On the contrary, he understands that detail in Mahler is there for a purpose, and serves the overall trajectory.  It’s not a question of getting bogged down in detail, but of understanding why and how it matters, which is an altogether more sophisticated approach.  For example, Mahler uses trumpets and trombones to keep the listener alert, just as angels use trumpets to announce important events. Thus the crucial Accende lumen sensibus theme was heralded by a particularly bright, celestial fanfare.  Boulez not only highlights the trombone and trumpet passages but respects how they change with each recurrence. Nothing stays still.  Again, Boulez demonstrated the purpose of detail in the magnificent coda at the end of the first movement.

Of course it was explosive, to dazzling effect, as would be expected from a section where the words Gloria ! Gloria ! are repeated with increasing ecstasy.  What made it really shine was that Boulez kept the multiple themes distinct and clear. The effect is not simply excitement for its own sake, but a reminder of how the movement had built up.  Mahler wrote these themes into the coda for a reason, and Boulez didn’t bury them under the crashing drums and the glorious full-throated choruses.

Mahler may have emphasised the importance of the human voice, but the slow, non-vocal section that opens the Second Part of this symphony is crucial to understanding the “poetic thoughts” in the text.  Interpretation, thus, is even more critical, and in this Boulez excelled.  This part of the symphony refers to the final scene in Faust, where Faust is raised to Heaven.  Goethe places the scene in bizarre landscape inhabited by anchorites, complete with tame lions who pace about stumm-freundlich  (placid and peacefully).  It’s a direct reference to a medieval concept depicted in paintings of the period. Anchorites are supposed to be hermits, yet suddenly they are united in a densely populated community, all singing the praises of God.  Even wild animals are tamed by this vision of transcendental joy.

Mahler not only knew Goethe’s poetry, but was also familiar with its manifestations in art. It was so important to him that he writes into manuscript :  Bergschluchten. Wald. Fels, Einöde. (mountain gorge, forest, cliff, desert).  Specifics like this can’t be ignored without peril, but Boulez understands that it’s the overall spiritual imagery that counts, not the picturesque.  Almost unbelievably pure, high woodwinds ascend ever upward, followed by gloriously strings, deepened in tone by brass.  Boulez is painting colours with sound, creating craggy shapes with the steady horizontals of pizzicato  and percussion.  The overall palette is of shimmering light : even the cymbal is played relatively quietly.  This is much more effective than letting it crash for dramatic effect.  Instead, its resonance blends subtly into the diaphanous textures, all the more effectively because the musical effect reinforces the spiritual imagery.

Then, out of the stillness, rise chords in ascending procession, anticipating the entry of the choir. When the voices join in, it’s like a pilgrimage, the quiet reverential singing underlined by pizzicato like footfalls. Boulez is evoking Tannhäuser, a connection which Mahler almost certainly would have appreciated.  Again, the vision of anchorites helps express the musical texture of the symphony.  In art, the hermits inhabit surreal perspectives, sometimes even hovering over the ground, and here we have Pater Ecstaticus auf and ab schwebend (soaring up and down).  Later the angels lift Faust’s soul and they fly off in der höheren Atmosphäre.  There’s movement everywhere, which Mahler translates into music that soars and flies ever upwards in different levels.  Boulez manages to capture this multi-dimensional effect again by respecting Mahler’s details.  Again, he does this by defining the different textures and coloursextremely precisely , so that they literally seem to shine.  The famous off-stage trumpets were exceptionally effective in the clean acoustic of the Philharmonie, truly adding an unusual, celestial layer to what was happening on stage.

Ultimately, this performance wasn’t just a blockbuster, but a deeply felt human testament.  Written after a period of intense personal re-assessment, it was to Mahler, his most important work to date. When the fourth volume of Professor Henry-Louis de La Grange’s biography appears, we’ll be in much better position to appreciate the atmosphere in which Mahler was developing his ideas.   We do know, though, that Alma’s infidelity shattered his self-confidence and made him consult Freud.  This does matter.  Faust made a pact with the devil so he could get worldly success, but in the process, destroyed Gretchen.  Yet, it is Gretchen’s forgiveness that saves Faust.  Donald Mitchell has commented on the curious reversal in which Alma’s sexuality both destroyed Mahler and regenerated the intense re-affirmation of faith this symphony celebrates.  It is Das Ewig-Weibliche that draws us heavenward, as the Chorus mysticus tells us, the Eternal Feminine, embodied in the Mater Gloriosa, “Jungfrau, Mutter, Königen, Göttin”. Boulez’s interpretation emphasises this human, intimate scale of the symphony. Again, he does this by respecting Mahler’s small, telling details, like the moments of warmth and lyricism so often lost in conventional, gargantuan accounts of the work.  He understands why Mahler places such importance on the poignant solo violin, particularly when it is countered against massed choir.  Similarly, in the Second Part, he doesn’t obscure the celeste or the humble mandolins, knowing how these instruments matter in the instrumentation.

Moreover, he’s gained these insights from a thorough understanding of Mahler’s entire output. Throughout Mahler’s work, figures repeat, sometimes used in different ways, but also, importantly, like leitmotivs, symbolising more than the notes alone convey.  This performance was part of a cycle of Mahler’s symphonies, and the echoes between them would be fresh in the minds of orchestra and audience.  Boulez’s vision of the panorama of Mahler’s work thus informed the way this symphony was presented.  For example, there are recurring references to Das himmlische Leben.  Boulez is even careful to highlight the passages in the Second Part which use ideas from what would become the song Von der Schönheit. Just how far Mahler had developed the ideas at the time he was writing the Eighth, I have no idea, but we know the song now and can’t escape the connections.  When we hear the soprano and altos sing about the reinen, reichen Quelle (pure rich spring) that sustained the Saviour in the desert, we can’t help but think of the lotus-pond that will appear in Das Lied von der Erde.  One image enhances the other.

This approach is totally relevant to his interpretation of this symphony in particular, because the Ewig-Weibliche refers not only to womanhood, but to the very idea of creativity itself.   Indeed, the eternal feminine is another manifestation of the Creator Spiritus, so passionately invoked.  The poems used in the two parts of this symphony may have been written a thousand years apart, but Mahler saw the connection immediately.  For him, life was about being creative.  He suffered when he had composing blocks, and insisted that his household revolve around his work.  After the crisis with Alma, perhaps he realised that the source of his inspiration stemmed from something deeper.  The Gretchen-figure, Una Poenitentium, sings of the Faust-figure shaking off earthly bonds and being reborn on a higher plane.  In the finale, the chorus sings Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis (all things transitory are but parable).  Old concerns are obliterated in new, heavenly inspiration.  The symphony culminates in ecstatic glory.

Light, and specifically the intense, divine light of spiritual illumination, runs throughout Mahler’s work with clear, undaunted commitment.  In many ways it’s even more important than the usual assumptions that dominate conventional commentary, because it focuses on solutions and goals.  Mahler deals with death and darkness, but his music inevitably heads towards a goal of resolution – resurrection, rebirth, awakening and the power of Primeval Light.  Ultimately, Mahler’s work deals with the mysteries of existence by celebrating life and the power force of creativity that defeats the negativity of death.  More than most, Boulez has contributed to this new, challenging perspective, his insights illuminated by deep musical understanding.   From this springs the clarity of his textures, the clean, precise detail and the unswerving focus on overall architecture.

This was amazingly beautiful playing, particularly as the Staatskappelle usually plays at the Staatsoper, not the Philharmonie. Boulez is a musician’s musician who builds orchestras, working on their strengths and weaknesses, motivating them to excel.  His relationship with the Staaatskappelle is grounded in mutual respect. 

It’s an aspect of conducting that is sadly underappreciated in a world where many focus, alas, on recording values rather than musicianship.  Boulez was excellent with the choirs, too, who sang with unusual commitment and feeling, as if they were all totally “on message”, intent on following the conductor.  Good choirmasters themselves are “on message” if they can get their singers to focus like this.  This was very spirited, fresh-sounding singing, totally in keeping with the heavenly imagery.

Technically, the soloists were very good too, although these are demanding parts which even very good singers sometimes fluff.  The male soloists did well, especially Botha, but it was the female soloists who really impressed.  Robinson, Isokoski and De Young, were singing with complete conviction, inspired by the depth of interpretation.  They are regular Boulez soloists.  They are superb in their own right (Isokoski is wonderful !), but they are also there because their voices balance well with the orchestral timbres Boulez seeks.

What made this performance above all, was its visionary, spiritual  intensity. This symphony has massive impact, and sometimes, it’s enough for a conductor to simply keep its vast forces from falling apart.  But Boulez has thought it through far more perceptively, and moreover, appreciated it in terms of Mahler’s complete outlook. What he’s illuminated is Mahler’s unceasing search for answers to the mysteries posed by earthly sorrow.  Concepts like redemption, rebirth and transcendence are intellectually more demanding, too, and need greater depth in interpretation.  Boulez doesn’t compromise , and he isn’t an “easy” conductor, but his perceptions burn white-hot with inner conviction.  Nor does he take risks.  What he does is based on sixty years of knowledge, experience and contemplation.  There’s an adage that says the more you know something, the more you realise just how much there is yet to learn.  From what we know of Mahler, we can deduce that he was an innovator not a conformist. As is Boulez, whose insights into the music are extraordinarily profound.


Anne Ozorio


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