The 2016 Lucerne Festival opened with Mahler Symphony no 8. Mahler's Eighth celebrates a powerful life force, the spirit of creativity itself, pulling together images from diverse sources. Thus it epitomizes the ideals that led Claudio Abbado to found the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, where the finest musicians from the best orchestras in Europe join together in communal harmony. Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Chailly were very close, and now Chailly carries on Abbado's ideals. Wherever Abbado might be now, his spirit hovered over this performance. This was an extraordinarily thoughtful performance culminating in ecstatic serenity, accessing "the peace that passeth all understanding", absolutely relevant to what the symphony might mean. Listen here on arte.tv (all areas)
Although Mahler's Eighth is known as "the Symphony of a Thousand" the title wasn't Mahler's but a marketing slogan invented by a concert promoter. But quantity is not quality. At Lucerne, the orchestra and soloists were supplemented by 222 choristers , arranged in six rows across the width of the hall, the Tölzer Knabenchor along the sides. Voices and orchestra were well balanced, allowing much greater freedom of expression. The boys choir can often get lost in an uproar, but here their relatively small but important role came through clearly. This matters. "So far I have employed words and the human voice to express only with immense breadth", Mahler wrote specifically of this symphony, "But here the voice is also an instrument used not only as sound but as the bearer of poetic thoughts". Poetic thoughts, some so delicate that they can be overwhelmed in interpretations that stress volume over artistry. No chance of that here. In Chailly's Mahler 8, every voice has its place in the grand scheme of things, a concept absolutely in tune with he concepts behind the symphony.
And what concepts! This symphony often confounds because it's so unorthodox. The First Part is relatively straightforward, being based on a hymn believed to have been written by Rabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz (c780-856) which describes the anxiety Jesus's disciples felt after Jesus had gone on ahead. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit descended from heaven upon them in the form of holy flames, inspiring them to go forth into the world, spreading the Gospels. Throughout his oeuvre, Mahler deals with death, but seeks resolution in some form of eternal life. Thus the symbol of the Pentecost as a metaphor for divine inspiration and continuity, and by extension, the mission embraced by a truly original, creative artist.
"Veni Creator spiritus".and "Accende lumen sensibus": images of light and fire illuminate this music. Chailly's clarity let the colours shine unsullied, absolutely essential to meaning. Only technical excellence can produce freedom as exhilarating as this. Everyone on message, singing and playing as if divinely inspired yet in complete harmony. This unity matters, since the concept described in the text applies to all creation. The inspiration was 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 dictated by some unknown force. Chailly's tempi were brisk, reflecting thus sense of urgency, but were not so driven that they obscured contrapunctual detail and the cross-currents that give the music depth.
The singing was equally ardent. Many of this cast are Mahler veterans, like Mihoko Fujimura and Peter Mattei (who was on Gielen's second M8 recording and on Chailly's with RCOA). Andreas Schager is less well known, though he's been a very distinctive Siegfried. Here, he sang with fervour, giving his parts great character. The other soloists, all superb, were Ricarda Merbeth, Juliane Banse, Anna Lucia Richter, Sara Mingardo and Samuel Youn. For me, they're all like old friends, so hearing them together, singing with obvious enjoyment, gave added meaning to the experience. Some members of the orchestra are spotted smiling too, caught by a camera crew who knew when and who to highlight.
The pause that binds together the two Parts of the symphony was marked with dignity, for out from this silence rises the slow movement which is in many ways the heart of the symphony. It marks the transition, a transition so esoteric that its meaning can't be expressed through text. Although the big choral flourishes catch more attention, this section shows the true measure of a conductor. Chailly's textures here reflected a sense of wonder and mystery.. Absolute refinement and attentiveness. In liturgical terms, this replicates the moment in the Catholic Mass during which the congregation meditates upon the Consecration which symbolizes the union of God and mankind. Hence the delicate but firm woodwinds and strings, and hushed, reverential voices. This section also refers to the moment in Goethe's Faust when Mephistopheles thinks he's won Faust's soul, but is thwarted by angels who scatter rose petals from Heaven, marking the beginning of Faust's redemption.
Bergschluchten. Wald. Fels, Einöde. (mountain gorge, forest, cliff, desert), Mahler wrote on the manuscript on the Second Part, a direct reference to the scene in Act Five of Goethe's Faust, which describes a bizarre landscape inhabited by anchorites, complete with tame lions who pace about stumm-freundlich (placid and peacefully). Anchorites are hermits who live alone in the wilderness, but are so close to God that they can tame savage beasts. Again, a clue to what the symphony might mean: the disavowal, of earthly games of domination and greed, sublimated in idealized transcendence. Medieval art wasn't fussed about literal realism. Figures inhabit surreal perspectives, sometimes even hovering over the ground, defying gravity and rational logic. In musical terms, such perspectives, however, work perfectly well. Thus 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. Thus the off-stage trumpets, the organ way above the platform and the Mater gloriosa singing from on high.
Yet for Mahler, as for Goethe, redemption comes through Das Ewig-Weibliche that draws us heavenward, as the Chorus mysticus tells us, the Eternal Feminine, embodied in the Mater Gloriosa, the “Jungfrau, Mutter, Königen, Göttin” thus dialogue between "masculine" and "femninine" runs through so much of Mahler's post-Wunderhorn work but few conductors highlight it the way Chailly does. He highlights the interplay between outburst and delicate detail, between combinations like piccolo and harmonium, timpani and harp. Perhaps this dichotomy represents Mahler and Alma, perhaps not, but Chailly is unusually sensitive to this aspect of Mahler's work. A few years ago, Chailly conducted Mahler's Symphony no 10 , creating the duality in the first movement with such grace that it drove some listeners crazy; but that reflected I think more on the misogyny of some listeners than on the performance itself. In Symphony no 8 with its message oif equanamity, union and creative rebirth, that graciousness and sensitivity is paramount.
Thus the luxuriant conclusion, in which triumph is achieved without violence; redemption reached through love, not dominance, affirmation, not neurosis. This Second Part proved the wisdom of the size and spacing of the choruses (Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Orfeón Donostiarra, Latvian Radio Choir, Tölzer Knabenchor). Because the sound was thoughtfully spread across the auditorium, the singers could sing naturally, without undue force, thus exemplifying the idea of angels and innocents, purity trouncing demonic forces. " Gloria ! Gloria!" for good reasons. The finale connected extremely well with the final chorus in the First Part. This performance probably wasn't "Mahler 8th for beginners" because it emphasized the "poetic thoughts" Mahler referred to rather than the "Barnum and Bailey" (Mahler's own words) aspects he so feared. The technical excellence of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and the singers allowed a performance of genuinely inspired insight : freedom doesn't come from free for all but from a mastery of the forces at hand. Conducting Mahler 8 is no joke. This Lucerne performance, with Chailly wasn't "big blast" but extraordinarily beautiful, revealing the true brilliance of Mahler's vision. Ultimately, I think, a performance should be assessed in terms of what fresh perspectives it reveals in a familiar work. In this case that revelation opens up whole new levels of insight.