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Mahler, Symphony No. 8: Soloists, Augmented CBSO Chorus, CBSO, Andris Nelsons (Conductor). Birmingham Symphony Hall. 16.9.2010 (GR)


Was it a case of great minds thinking alike or just coincidence that both the BBC Proms 2010 and the Birmingham Mahler Cycle chose Symphony No. 8 to begin their celebrations for this Mahler anniversary year? Whatever the reason, the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ was a smart decision for Birmingham and although the number of performers assembled in Symphony Hall fell somewhat short of the legendary number, the soloists, chorus and orchestra presented an impressive and spectacular display.


The opening salvo from Peter King on the organ and the massed choirs of the CBSO Chorus, the CBSO Youth Chorus, the CBSO Children’s Choir, the Hallé Choir (returning a favour) and members of the City of Birmingham Choir, ignited the Veni, Creator Spiritus hymn on which Part One is based, with an explosion of sound. We were off! The Come, Holy Ghost, Creator text that forms part of the ninth century liturgy for Pentecost, had inspired Mahler; and the integration and sheer volume of this introduction inspired me too. No creative spirit, as Mahler referred to the words, could surely fail to respond to such a passionate outburst. After the dust settled however , the exchanges involving all seven soloists did not give me the impression of ‘overflowing with divine grace’. The section is not a competition between the two sopranos and a better balance between the voices was needed at times. Although the First Soprano, Marina Shaguch, has the main motif, I thought she tended to dominate the ensembles. There was a clarity and precision to the playing of the CBSO: worthy of mention were the pizzicati strings, the solidarity of the bassoons and some shrill sounds from the brass. Comparing this first part to previous performances and recordings, I thought conductor Andris Nelsons created a different emphasis to many. There was a pithy severity to his interpretation, one remote from the spiritual nature of the text, but none the less engaging for that. The silence after the closing cut off was deafening!


In the Prelude to Part Two, Nelsons and the CBSO players set the scene for The Final Scene from Goethe’s Faust, painting an evocative picture of the mountain gorge inhabited by the hermits described in the romantic classic. The woodwind section was in fine form, with the wistful flutes playing as one whem recalling the haunting Accende lumen theme from Part One. The texture of the gentle strings created a relaxed yet dark image of nature in the raw: truly Mahlerian. As the Slow Movement continued, the craggy scene so vividly depicted by the orchestra was confirmed by the subsequent staccato of the male chorus of anchorites. One of their number, baritone Christopher Maltman, an ideal Pater Ecstaticus, expressed the creative power of love with rich, forceful and heartfelt tones; his Lanzen, bezwinget mich (Arrows, transfix me) pierced every corner of the Symphony Hall. I thought Stephen Gadd, as the second hermit Pater Profundus, struggled to meditate from the depths, particularly with the turmoil and angst stirred up by Nelsons behind him. And why was a baritone singing a bass role?


In the Scherzo, the emphasis switched between the multiple choral sections – Angels, Cherubs, Younger Angels and More Perfect Angels, each contributing to the journey of Faust’s soul to paradise – with Nelsons at his busiest. The energy he exuded for 90 min never flagged. In Mahler 8 the conductor cannot hope to cue every entry, but Nelsons seemed to give it a damn good try. One delicious moment amidst these invocations, was the break from leader Laurence Jackson that introduces the First Alto contribution from Katarina Karneus. Sergei Semishkur, a Mariinsky soloist as Doctor Marianus (another hermit and reputably based on Anselm the 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury) handled his high tessitura with ease, including a resounding top B. Interspersed during this solo, the cellos led by Ulrich Heinen added a contrast of pure cream, both in Heinen’s solo and when playing together. At Semishkur’s sublime Jungfrau, rein im schösten Sinn (Virgin of the highest purity) the first violins delicately underlined the feeling of innocence. With presumably only room for two harps on the crowded Birmingham stage, stalwart Robert Johnson introduced another glorious Mahler moment from the first violins, this time backed by the harmonium.


As the music moved into the finale, each of the three penitents prayed individually to the Virgin Mary, Shaguch as Magna Peccatrix (Luke 7:36) Karneus as Mulier Samaritiana (John 4) and Mihoko Fujimura as Maria Aegyptiaca. Their voices blended well in the adjoining canonic trio – creating a rare relaxed and carefree mood. Steve Smith’s madolin formed a link to Gretchen’s added plea on behalf of Faust – Erin Wall here in fine voice pulling out all the stops alongside the chorus of boys. When the recipient of these supplications, Mater Gloriosa, made her brief contribution, I failed to spot her. But I certainly heard Carolyn Sampson from somewhere on high, on the right side. She was fantastic, the high spot of the evening and her purity and warmth had the audience spellbound, as a quick glance around confirmed. With the soul of Faust having reached the firmament, Nelsons was at his most animated, effectively building the tension, relaxing it and rebuilding again to a magnificent closing climax. It was possible to imagine, as Mahler had put it himself, ‘the whole universe beginning to ring and resound …….. no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.’

A team of musicweb-international reviewers is covering the whole Birmingham Mahler Cycle. THSH are also celebrating the occasion by inviting responses either on the postcards they distribute at each concert or at through their website. My own ‘My Mahler’ moment in this Symphony No 8 belonged to Carolyn Sampson.

Geoff Read


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