Monday, 30 June 2014

Salonen Mahler 8 - not a Symphony of a Thousand

Mahler's Symphony no 8 was given its title "The Symphony of a Thousand" by a promoter who wanted to attract the kind of crowd who like blockbusters, but don't necessarily care much about music. Judging from the delirious applause at last night's Royal Festival Hall concert, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, that kind of audience is all too common these days, too.

The Mahler anniversary year murdered Mahler. Everyone seemed to jump on the bandwagon. Shameful exploitation, like "The People's Mahler", cynical commercialism, sloppy clichés instead of scholarship.  The cause of Mahler was set back 50 years just as the composer was at last being understood with more sophisticated depth.  I will not blame Esa-Pekka Salonen for this brutishness. He conducted an excellent Mahler Symphony no 3 a few years ago that emphasized the open-air summery optimism in the symphony: definitely a valid insight. Salonen also conducted an astute Mahler 7th (read more here). He's not by instinct an idiomatic Mahler conductor, but he's worth listening to.  I should however have reckoned with "South Bank Mahler" created for first-time listeners, their enthusiasm whipped up by the excesses of Mahler Year. But there is infinitely more to Mahler than loud and brash.

"Veni, veni creator spiritus". This opening is wonderfully theatrical, exploding as it does from near silence. On the other hand this explosion was so violent that it seemed more like an aggressive call to arms. If the spirit of creativity is personal, and private, it would wither in this blast. And so the choruses continued, forceful and strident, in the manner of Victorian massed choruses, for which quantity mattered more than quality. Salonen's approach was closer to Mahler the man of the 20th century, more questioning and more agile. His tempi were fleet, and apart from some sad blips from the trombones, the Philharmonia responded with alacrity. Sometimes you can visualize  banners flying in the wind, in the tempestuous first part of this symphony: Mahler seems almost giddy with expectation and creative verve. The choruses, however, seemed to prefer to march at their own pace.

Mahler 8 employs a lot of singers but fundamentally it's a symphony rather than a choral work per se. The best Mahler 8th I've ever heard was at the Philharmonie in Berlin, which is roughly comparable in size to the RFH. I've even heard it in an 8,000 seat velodrome in Paris, better suited to rock concerts than to symphonies, and that worked well, too. Large choral pieces do work well in the Royal Festival Hall, so it wasn't a matter of performance space but performance.

Significantly, there's a pause for silence between the two parts of this symphony; that alone should be a cause for reflection. The second part begins with a long, ruminative section where the orchestra sings, not the voices.  This part of the symphony refers to the final scene in Faust, where Faust is raised to Heaven. Goethe places the scene in a bizarre landscape inhabited by anchorites, complete with tame lions who pace about stumm-freundlich (placid and peacefully)..Here, Salonen and the Philharmonia achieved much better results. Solo instruments interacted well with larger groupings : particularly lyrical flutes and high winds, suggesting purity and upward flight.

"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 is also an instrument.... used not only as sound but as the bearer of poetic thoughts."  

These words are important for interpretation, though Mahler 8 can support many interpretations, even Bělohlávek's completely unidiomatic but genially Bohemian-flavoured Proms performance. But the voices have to connect to the music.  In this performance, the soloists stood at each end of the platform, between the orchestra and the choruses, probably because there isn't much space on the RFH platform to squeeze them anywhere else.  Unfortunately that meant that the soloists had to shout to be heard.  Roland Wood usually has good pitch and a voice which projects well on stage, but here his Pater Ecstaticus was untypically rough.  Elizabeth Llewellyn, fortunately, sang a lovely Una Poenitentium /Gretchen.  Garlanded by harpists, her singing was balm. Judith Howarth, replacing Elisabeth Meister, sang a well-balanced Magna Peccatrix.  From up in a box, Lucy Crowe's voice created a luminous Mater Glorioisa. The Tiffin Boys Choir showed how refreshing choral singing can be when it's connected to music.

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