Mahler’s 8th at Royal Albert Hall

Yet this First Night of the
Proms underwhelmed to an extent that surprised, a state of affairs for which
responsibility lay squarely at the door of the conductor, Jiři
Bělohl·vek. Whatever the strengths of the present Principal Conductor of
the BBC Symphony Orchestra may be, they always seemed unlikely to lie in
Mahler, and so it proved. Should a performance of this work turn out to be
merely a pleasant enough experience, something has clearly gone awry. It was
not even wrong-headed enough to interest in the sense that, say, Sir Georg
Solti’s relentlessly hard-driven, unabashedly operatic recording might,
although, almost paradoxically, in its soft-grained way, it perhaps stood
closer to such a reading than to probing renditions by the likes of Jascha
Horenstein, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Pierre Boulez, or Michael Gielen.

My first impression was favourable, Bělohl·vek rendering
Mahler’s counterpoint surprisingly clear, apparently placing the work in
the tradition of the composer’s fifth symphony. Doubts soon set in,
however. The first ‘slower’ section set the pace, or lack of it,
for its successors. Mahler writes, following his a tempo indication,
‘Etwas (aber unmerklich) gem‰fligter; immer sehr flieflend.’ Instead
of relative moderation and care always to flow, the music almost ground to a
halt. This is not simply a matter of tempo, of course; vitality was lacking.
Returning to the comparison with Solti, the solo quintet sounded too
‘operatic’, in an almost Italianate sense: Mahler for those who
prefer Verdi, albeit without fire. Bělohl·vek guided a clear enough
course through the first movement, but the reading was very four-square,
lacking in dynamism, and ultimately quite debilitating in terms of its
sectional approach. The work’s structure needs to be brought out, but
just as important to that is the unity of the movement and indeed of the
symphony as a whole. And so, the ‘Accende…’ music, exciting
in itself, did not seem to come from anywhere. Moreover, the orchestra was
underpowered — indeed, surprisingly small: just sixteen first violins
down to eight double basses. The strings, especially during the first part,
often sounded scrawny and there were uncomfortably shrill moments from the
woodwind. There was, however, some splendid duo work towards the end of the
movement from the kettledrums, and the presence of the Royal Albert Hall organ
(Malcolm Hicks) was throughout impressive, almost violently so at times. Choral
singing was here and elsewhere very fine indeed, undoubtedly the saving grace
of the performance. Applause marred the conclusion of this first part.

The opening of the second part flowed but lacked mystery — at least
until the sounding of beautifully grave horns, followed by shimmering violins:
a passage to savour. The brass section was resplendent, yet it was impossible
to overlook the general lack of depth to string tone. Mahler’s music
needs to resound as if hailing from the bowels of the earth, not as if it were
a thin layer of turf lain on the surface. Matters improved, however, once the
chorus re-entered, and the echo effect was unusually impressive: not easy, with
these forces. Hanno M¸ller-Brachmann was a typically thoughtful,
beautiful-toned Pater Ecstaticus, and Tomasz Konieczny more or less followed
suit, if hardly de profundis, as Pater Profundus. Stephanie Blythe
stood out amongst the female soloists: a mezzo, but with hints of an
earth-mother contralto. Stefan Vinke was a very late substitute for the
indisposed Nikolai Schukoff as Doctor Marianus. He sounded a little nervous to
start with, but grew into the part, though without the virility that so
impressed me when I saw him in Leipzig as Lohengrin
and Parsifal.
(Doubtless the size of the hall has something to do with it too, but if ever
there were a Royal Albert Hall work, it must be this.) Twyla Robinson improved
dramatically as Una Poenitentium, the words of her first stanza indistinct,
diction much superior thereafter, and with a glorious tone in conclusion:
‘Vergˆnne mir, ihn zu belehren, noch blendet ihn der neue Tag!’
Choral singing was once again of a very high standard; I was especially taken
by the lovely tone of the Chorus of Blessed Boys as they circled (at least in
one’s imagination).

The conductor, however, continued to let the side down. Thematic links with
the first part were clearly brought out, but that was one of the
interpretation’s few virtues. (In any case, the connections are pretty
difficult to miss!) Orchestral heft was simply lacking; for much of the time,
Bělohl·vek sounded as though he would have been more at home with
Mendelssohn or, at a push, Schumann. The latter’s Scenes from
Goethe’s Faust
might have responded better to such treatment, though
I fear that that work would have lacked fire too. Slow passages dragged and
accelerations sounded arbitrary. There were some beautiful instrumental
moments, for instance the sound of strings, harps, and harmonium as Mater
Gloriosa floated into view, but again this was too much of a slow section in
itself, preceded by an inordinately distended and downright sentimentalised
‘Jungfrau, rein im schˆnsten Sinne…’ from Doctor Marianus
and chorus. It was again the latter that shone in the final Chorus Mysticus:
beautifully sung, but that is not nearly enough. A performance of this work
that fails to grab one by the scruff of one’s neck is barely a
performance at all.

Mark Berry

Click here to listen to this performance.

image_description=Gustav Mahler
product_title=Gustav Mahler: Symphony no.8 in E-flat major
product_by=Mardi Byers (soprano, Magna Peccatrix); Twyla Robinson (soprano, Una Poenitentium); Malin Christensson (soprano, Mater Gloriosa); Stephanie Blythe (mezzo-soprano, Mulier Samaritana); Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano, Maria Aegyptica); Stefan Vinke (tenor, Doctor Marianus); Hanno M¸ller-Brachmann (bass-baritone, Pater Ecstaticus); Tomasz Konieczny (bass, Pater Profundus). Choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral (chorus-master: Andrew Carwood); Choristers of Westminster Abbey (chorus-master: James O’Donnell); Choristers of Westminster Cathedral (chorus-master: Martin Baker); BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus-master: Stephen Jackson); Crouch End Festival Chorus (chorus-master: David Temple); Sydney Philharmonia Choirs (chorus-master: Brett Weymark); BBC Symphony Orchestra; Jiři Bělohl·vek (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Friday 16 July 2010.
product_id=Above: Gustav Mahler