MusicWeb International's Worldwide Concert and Opera Reviews

 Clicking Google advertisements helps keep MusicWeb subscription-free.

Other Links

Editorial Board

  • Editor - Bill Kenny

Founder - Len Mullenger

Google Site Search


Internet MusicWeb



Cambridge Music Festival 2009 - Mahler Eight: Soloists, Cambridge University Musical Society Chorus, The Choirs of Christ’s, Emmanuel and Wolfson Colleges and King’s Voices, Sawston Village College Choir, Cambridge University Musical Society Orchestra, Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra, Stephen Cleobury (conductor). Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire 28.11.2009 (JPr)

Naomi Harvey (soprano 1), Linda Richardson (soprano 2), Raphaela Papadakis (Mater Gloriosa), Jean Rigby (alto 1), Louise Crane (alto 2), Justin Lavender (tenor), Paul Carey Jones (baritone) and Roderick Earle (bass).

Cambridge Music Festival celebrated the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species and the 800th anniversary of Cambridge University by giving their festival events the theme of ‘Music and Evolution’.

As Dr John van Wyhe, director of Darwin Online, explained in his essay in the Festival programme book,  undoubtedly the young Darwin would have heard music ‘at home, visiting friends and relatives, and at church’ though little is known of his musical interests as a child. It seems that he developed an appreciation for classical music when he was a student at Christ’s College from 1828-31 and in his Autobiography he wrote: ‘I acquired a strong taste for music & used very often to time my walks so as to hear on week days the anthem in King’s College Chapel’. Despite a clear fondness for music Darwin was tone deaf, and it seem he had a very difficult time recalling a tune he just heard the day before. ‘My musical friends soon perceived my state, & sometimes amused themselves by making me pass an examination, which consisted of ascertaining how many tunes I could recognise, when they were played rather more quickly or slowly than usual. ‘God save the King’ when thus played was a sore puzzle’. It seems he enjoyed most the symphonies and overtures of Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven. Emma, his wife, was a talented pianist (she studied with Frédéric Chopin) and would play the piano for him at their home, Down House in Kent, as he reclined on a nearby sofa.

If Origin of Species is Darwin’s greatest achievement then there is an argument to say that the Eighth Symphony is possibly Mahler’s. It was dubbed ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ by the composer’s agent in 1910 : Mahler disapproved of this, yet this title has stuck to it ever since. He composed it in two parts; the shorter first part, to the text of the ninth-century Christian hymn (attributed to Rabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz) ‘Veni, creator spiritus’, which paves the way for Part II, the final scene from Goethe's Faust. To devotees of Goethe, mythology and Christianity, this marriage of text and music undoubtedly holds many levels of meaning; yet this juxtaposition of sacred and secular texts in this symphony remains its least discussed aspect despite its obvious significance. Mahler was clearly rather ambivalent about religion though this symphony is an abiding testament to his deep and abiding spirituality; here we have both God and Goethe, eternal life versus eternal love. Mahler’s wife Alma reports that the music of the opening ‘Veni, creator spiritus’ (‘Come, creator spirit’) came to him in a burst of inspiration and this actually ‘inspires’ the thought that for the composer himself it might have resonated more as ‘come, creative spirit’.

The greater catalyst for the symphony’s composition seems to have been the ‘ideal’ that Goethe expressed, as Mahler explained to his wife in June 1906: ‘That which draws us by its mystic force, what every created thing, perhaps even the very stones, feels with absolute certainty as the centre of its being, what Goethe here - again employing an image - calls the Eternal Feminine - that is to say, the resting-place, the goal, in opposition to the striving and struggling towards the goal (the Eternal Masculine) - you are quite right in calling the force of love. Goethe ... expresses it with a growing clearness and certainty right on to the Mater Gloriosa - the personification of the Eternal Feminine!’

Every performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is special because of the need for a huge venue capable of showcasing the very full orchestra, eight big-voiced soloists, and hundreds of choristers. In the last three years I have seen this work performed in three cathedral venues, 2007 in Gloucester, 2008 at St Paul’s and now at Ely Cathedral and none has done full justice to Mahler’s creativity. The fault has never been in the efforts of the singers, choirs and orchestras involved but simply because the massive sound they make is compromised by the Romanesque, Gothic or Baroque architecture in which they are performing. Here,  the choirs were not banked up high enough at the end of the Nave and often their sound, as well as that from the orchestra and soloists, went straight up into Ely Cathedral’s famous Octagon ‘Lantern Tower’ and either dissipated or, if rather loud, reverberated excessively  especially during Part I.

Stephen Cleobury, director of music at King’s College, Cambridge, is a vastly experienced conductor and he launched into the hymn with vigour. As the symphony went on,  his account managed to convey the piece as a cogent entity and the sudden emotional shifts of the music came through clearly as did the compelling narrative arc of Part II. If the tumultuous blaring outbursts never worked as well as they should have, the passages of ruminative quiet were better and, most importantly, the enthusiasm of his young musicians - and the commitment of his choirs - never flagged throughout a strongly driven performance that gave little opportunity for interpretative nuance. The guest leader, Charles Mutter, deserved special mention as his violin tone shone out in his individual contributions.

The soloists tried very hard throughout not to get lost in the blend. Paul Carey Jones’s light-grained baritone contrasted with Roderick Earle’s dark bass intonations as did Jean Rigby’s effulgent mezzo richness with Louise Crane, her softer voiced colleague. As the Mater Gloriosa, Raphaela Papadakis, singing from right at the top of the choirs, emerged briefly from the ‘higher spheres’ of which she sang,  to deliver her two lines with the clarity and incisiveness other lacked because of the Cathedral’s acoustics. Justin Lavender rose well to the challenge this symphony presents for the tenor and his ardent lyricism was heard to best advantage at ‘Jungfrau, Mutter, Königin’ just before the Chorus Mysticus in which the always focused sopranos, Naomi Harvey and Linda Richardson, finally managed to soar above everything else to bring us closer to heaven. Then finally, when everyone joined together for ‘das Unbeschreibliche’ (‘the indescribable), at last the incandescent grandeur of Mahler's vision became more apparent.

Jim Pritchard

Back to Top                                                    Cumulative Index Page