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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 (1908)
Twyla Robinson (soprano); Erin Wall (soprano); Adriane Queiroz (soprano); Michelle DeYoung (contralto); Simone Schröder (contralto); Johan Botha (tenor); Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone); Robert Holl (bass); Tobias Berndt (organ)
Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin; Rundfunkchor Berlin; Aurelius Sängerknaben Calw; Staatskapelle Berlin/Pierre Boulez
rec. Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin, April 2007
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4776597 [23:44 + 61:32]

The theme “Veni, Creator Spiritus” runs throughout this symphony and there’s no mistaking how much the idea meant to the composer: ignore it at your peril. Mahler doesn’t place so much emphasis on the theme for nothing. Written after a traumatic period in his life, the music is a powerful affirmation of life and of the spirit of creative art. In many ways it is perhaps the most critical of all Mahler symphonies because here he crystallises many of the ideas he’s developed up to this point. It also occupies a critical turning point in his work, clearing his horizons for Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony. “Come, spirit of creation” he most certainly meant. It’s in this light that I write this review.
A composer’s manuscript comes alive when it’s transferred to sound by a musician, even one just reading the score. Music “exists” in interpretation. There are people who say “What can any performer tell me what I don’t already know?” And perhaps these people are indeed so clever they know everything. But for others, the more they learn about something, the more they realise how much there is yet to be discovered. That’s why people end up with dozens of different performances. It’s not about finding “the best” or ranking them, but about engaging with what each performer has to say, in their own different ways. Because we’re so used to thinking in terms of recordings, it’s all too easy to forget that, in real life, a performance is a whole entity,. It’s borne from a performer’s vision of the piece as a whole, which comes from the performer’s knowledge and experience, and from his sensitivity to the composer’s ideas. That’s why it’s important to assess performance as whole cloth. It’s not pick and mix, one bar here, another passage from there. Music doesn’t work that way in the real world.
That’s why I find this performance of Mahler’s great Eighth Symphony so moving and so profound. It’s very deeply thought-through indeed. Boulez has lived with this music for more than fifty years, and approaches this particular performance with an understanding gained through extremely extensive knowledge. A lot of marketing nonsense has been put forth about this being the last instalment in a “cycle”, but how can a series of recordings made of decades be a cycle? They are only staging posts that happened to be recorded on the conductor’s lifelong journey performing and listening to Mahler, and learning his idiom. This performance, then, is the culmination of years of intense involvement. Boulez has never played the usual conductor circuit: he’s only ever performed what he loves and believes in, regardless of whether it’s popular or not.
Being a free spirit has meant he’s been able to do innovative things, such as Domaine Musicale and later the groundbreaking Ensemble Intercontemporain, which changed how modern orchestras are organised. He’s been a major champion of composers like Varèse, Bartók, Carter, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Debussy, Wagner, Webern, Messiaen and others. His approach has always been composer-focused: he goes straight to source and finds something unique to explore. It’s not about crowd pleasing: it’s about artistic vision. “Veni, creator spiritus” could be his life’s theme-tune.
He doesn’t play the gallery like so many more popular conductors. Perhaps that’s why he’s gained the reputation for being cerebral, because what he does doesn’t provide instant gratification, but provokes deeper thought. Persist, though, past the easy clichés and assumptions, and listen. There is intensity in his work that isn’t always apparent on the surface. He doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, but what he does burns with the white hot passion of deep inner commitment. Even things I haven’t particularly liked have taught me a lot, and I’ve been the better for the experience. This man has something to say, and it’s valid even if it might not be what you “want” to hear.
Now, at last to this particular recording. Earlier this year, I was in Berlin for the live performance. Although it’s quite a read, please take the trouble to read my review because it does apply to the recording made only a few days later. If nothing else it saves repeating!
This is not an easy symphony to conduct, and many conductors are happy just to keep it from falling apart. More importantly, it is sprawling. Mahler’s instructions for breaks between parts - his word - serve a functional purpose. Note that he wrote these parts just as carefully as he did complete movements. Seldom has a performance delineated so clearly the internal architecture that shapes this great cathedral of a symphony. For example, the slow, passages that open the second part are sometimes glossed over in favour of the glorious finale, but they are crucially important to creating the contemplative atmosphere that leads into the super-charged realms to follow. Just as in other Mahler symphonies, the summit is reached through a steady climb.
As so often with Boulez, the sense of trajectory is clearly defined. He knows exactly why details are written into the score and what they contribute to the whole. For example, chords ascend ever upwards and outwards to create a sense of wide, soaring heights (heaven is after all where we end up). Pater Ecstaticus’s music expresses movement auf und ab schwebend (soaring up and down). Later the angels lift Faust’s soul and they fly off in der höheren Atmosphäre. Details like this aren’t observed for their own sake, but because they are thoroughly integrated in the grand progression. In this recording the feeling of space becomes quite beautifully three dimensional, as the sound fills the space of the Berlin church in which it was recorded - with an audience, incidentally.
Similarly, Boulez observes details which connect the symphony to other parts of Mahler’s work, enhancing the depth of meaning. For example, the recurring references to Das himmlische Leben, which again connect to moments in the Fourth Symphony and of course to the Wunderhorn songs. Similarly, there’s the passage in the second part which presages ideas from Von Der Schönheit, and links the piece to what is to come. This is an extremely literate reading of the symphony, in the sense that Boulez at once conducts the piece at hand, yet is totally attuned to the composer’s whole repertoire and its subtle, intricate relationships.
It’s a good interpretation, too, because it shows the Eighth as the ultimate Song Symphony, a genre Mahler so innovatively created. Songs is so fundamental to everything Mahler does that it is essential to understand its role and significance. In the simplest terms, passages from songs amplify the meaning and scope of the orchestration, such as in the First Symphony, where the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen amplify themes of spring and repose. Significantly, as the Second, Third and Fourth symphonies reach their destination, Mahler brings in song, for the vocal parts express meaning more specifically than music alone. By the Eighth symphony the apotheosis of song symphony is reached. “So far I have employed words and the human voice to express symphonically”, he said, “But here the voice is also an instrument … used not only as sound, but as the bearer of poetic thoughts”. With Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler is using song in a completely different, almost minimalist way.
“Poetic thoughts”. That’s significant, too, and contrary to common assumption, perhaps the most important part of Boulez’s conception. Mahler repeats over, and over, what the symphony means to him. “Veni, creator spiritus” keeps recurring in words and music, as does the “Accende lumen sensibus” motif. “Illuminate our sense with creative light”. Mahler doesn’t mess about, but emphasizes the motifs with brass fanfares, alarums heralding that something very important is about to happen. So Boulez thinks about what Mahler might be trying to say. Again, this comes from a very profound understanding of Mahler’s ideas and creative processes. For too long, we’ve assumed that Mahler somehow “has” to be neurotic, death-obsessed and gloomy. But notice how he ends nearly every symphony, with a finale that speaks of resurrection, rebirth, reconciliation and transcendence. Again and again, he uses the imagery of light, upwards movement. The finale of the Second Symphony doesn’t grow out of Urlicht for nothing. Even Boulez’s daring experiments with high voices and low on his Mahler Songs recording falls into place once this primary concept of light and darkness is understood. Thus he illuminates the Eighth more clearly and glowingly than I’ve ever heard it. The second part of this symphony contains the most ecstatic, exuberant music Mahler ever wrote, for in it he’s expressing no less than triumph over death, and redemption through love and art. It’s meant to be exhilarating. It’s all too easy to assume it’s merely elaborate, and play up its theatricality, drowning its real meaning in a cloying molasses of maudlin sentiment. Here again, Boulez’s clear-sighted, uncompromising vision comes to the fore. Indeed I can‘t remember any other conductor approaching this part with such lucid intelligence. Boulez’s light is clean, pure and refined, all the more moving because it doesn’t employ conventional prettiness.
This is a truly amazing performance, exceptionally vivid and life-affirming. Performances throughout were excellent. It’s almost petty to single out individual, singers in a performance as well integrated as this where everyone seemed totally enthused and motivated. That’s something often overlooked on recordings, but here it’s palpable. This is a team effort and everyone’s on the ball. “Veni, creator spiritus” touched them all!
Usually, I wouldn’t mention sound, particularly in a performance like this which was so spiritually uplifting that mechanical processing should be irrelevant, but before the concert at the Philharmonie, someone from German radio gave a talk about how good recording can enhance balance in a symphony as big as this. He was right. Where I was sitting, the male voices didn’t come over so well, but on the tapes, they are in better focus.
Altogether, this is a performance recommended to anyone who wants to get closer to Mahler, and to the very spirit of artistic creativity. I’m proud to say that, after all these years, Boulez has made me realize how much there is still to be learned about Mahler, and why performers get so much out of his music.
Anne Ozorio

see also review by Dan Morgan


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