Saturday 16 May 2009

Mahler 8 Boulez Berlin

“So far I have employed words and the human voice …….t o 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, this massive symphony will always be stunning. But as Mahler so explicitly states, the vast forces are bearers of "poetic thoughts", so powerful that they need ambitious expression. It's not spectacle for the sake of spectacle, not a circus for pulling stunts of sheer people management. Central to its meaning is its relationship to Mahler's music and ideas as a whole.

The theme “Veni, Creator Spiritus” runs throughout this symphony, so there’s no mistaking how much the idea meant to the composer: ignore it at your peril. The music is a powerful affirmation of life and of the spirit of artistic creation. In many ways it is perhaps the most critical of all Mahler symphonies because here he crystallizes 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 9th Symphony. “Come, spirit of creation” expresses the idea that through emotional awareness and creativity, we can reach transcendence.

Faust is redeemed by faith, and by love. Nit-picking pedants are right, it's not rational. But it's 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.

In April 2007, Pierre Boulez conducted the Eighth in Berlin with the Staatskapelle. It was one of the great experiences of my life. Boulez seemed to hear the symphony as profoundly liberating: after all, Faust beats the devil and is raised up to heaven. Sin is expunged, purified in a blaze of light. Boulez never loses sight of the ultimate destination, even though he's clear on detail. Accende lumen sensibus was heralded by a particularly bright, celestial fanfare. He not only highlights the trombone and trumpet passages but respects how they change with each recurrence. The magnificent coda at the end of the first movement was electrifying, because it marks the crucial transition.

The performance was explosive, as would be expected from a section where the words Gloria ! Gloria ! repeat with increasing ecstasy. Yet it's not simply excitement for its own sake. The textures build up and multiply, so detail wasn't buried under the crashing drums and glorious, full-throated choruses.

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, because there are no words as clues. 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). It’s a direct reference to a medieval concept depicted in paintings of the period.

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 the manuscript: Bergschluchten. Wald. Fels, Einöde. (mountain gorge, forest, cliff, desert). 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.

Almost unbelievably pure, high woodwinds ascend ever upward, followed by glorious strings, deepened in tone by brass. Boulez (who loves art and collects paintings), 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, he does this by extremely precisely defining the different textures and colours, 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.

For all its highly charged spirituality, this symphony is profoundly personal and intimate. Thus the poignant solo violin part, pitted against the massed choir, and the delicate celeste and mandolin among the grand instrumentation. It’s dedicated to Alma. Mahler’s wife and muse. She was the Gretchen to his Faust. Read Professor Henry-Louis de La Grange's monumental biography of the composer for background. The Fourth volume, A New life Cut Short is absolutely essential reading, for it covers the turbulent last years of Mahler's life. The book sheds great insight, an invaluable aid to appreciating what made Mahler tick.

However badly Alma was to treat the composer, she was his inspiration. So 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”.

Alma's diaries place Mahler in a bad light because she blamed him for not letting her become a composer herself. It's true, but he was hardly the monster she makes out. He wasn't a fool: her music isn't remotely in the league of his. Yet he did pay for her music lessons, even with Zemlinsky after their marriage. After the trauma of her affair with Gropius, he berated himself for not respecting her more. Alma's resentments may cloud our image of Mahler, but by the standards of his time, he was remarkably liberal. The two parts of the symphony may seem different on a superficial level, but they connect conceptually, as the "creative spirit" is made concrete through love, and the power of a specifically female nurturance.

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 the Berlin cycle of Mahler’s symphonies, that preceded the more publicized (in the Englsih speaking world) New York sequence. The performance was thus deliberately enhanced by hearing it in the context of the grand panorama of Mahler's work as a whole.

For example, there are recurring references to Das himmlische Leben, so intimately linked with the Wunderhorn symphonies. Yet there are 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 don't know, but we know the song now and can’t escape the reference. Similarly, 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.

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, transfiguration, and the power of Primeval Light. More than most, Boulez has contributed to this new, challenging "light infused" perspective on Mahler's music. From this springs the clarity of his textures, the clean, precise detail and the unswerving focus on overall architecture.

What Boulez illuminates is Mahler’s unceasing search for answers to eternal mysteries. What Boulez does is based on sixty years of knowledge of the composer's music and life, so his approach is deeply felt and thought through. He isn't heart on sleeve indulgent. Instead, he lets the music speak, bringing the listener closer to source, so to speak.

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, like Mahler himself an intellectual and individualist. We can never stop learning, because there is so much we've yet to fathom. Professor de La Grange's fourth volume stresses that Mahler was possibly on the verge of a new phase when he died. We'll never know how, but this open ended concept makes the Tenth Symphony so tantalising.

There is a recording of the Berlin Boulez Mahler 8th, made a few days after the Philharmonie performance. I also have a tape of the live broadcast. They are brilliant – you "need" to hear them if you want to engage with of this wonderful symphony.

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