Mahler 8, Royal Festival Hall

(reviewed here,
with Das Lied von der Erde), I could not believe that the Eighth would
prove worse. It did — considerably so.

The ‘Veni, creator spiritus’ opened in strong, muscular fashion, yet
ominously, not only was it metronomic but one could hear every beat, just as in
the previous concert. Then there came an extraordinary slowing down, or rather
grinding to a halt and staying there, for the entry of the soloists, who,
cushioned by a Philharmonia Orchestra reduced for some time to the level of
mere accompaniment, sounded more like a Verdi ensemble than voices in the
heavenly firmament. The solo voices, moreover, were weirdly positioned: not
just in the sense of being behind the orchestra (though raised), but also
placed antiphonally at the uppermost two corners of the stage, as if the
conductor or management were worried where co-educational singing might lead.
The soloists coped variably: Stefan Vinke’s voice stood out, sometimes for
better, sometimes for worse, amongst the men, whilst Sarah Connolly proved
strongest from the opposing camp. Sally Matthews often sounded strained —
though who would not at such a tempo? — whilst Ailish Tynan occasionally
contributed an unpleasant edge to proceedings. Even when the pace sped up
dramatically, only rapidly and arbitrarily to slow a little later, there was no
sense of what any of the words, let alone the music, might mean. It all sounded
very hard work, certainly not ecstatic, or even joyful. Whilst the Philharmonia
played well in purely technical terms, the orchestra had forced upon it,
especially during the development section, an inappropriately fierce attack, a
fair aural reflection of Maazel’s stabbing beat. Even string pizzicato
sounded as though it might slice one’s hand off. A painful horn fluff in the
lead up to the double fugue can be readily forgiven, but the vulgarity with
which Maazel directed the brass thereafter cannot: even Solti would surely have
blanched at such a loud, brash, artificially ‘exciting’, indeed deafening,
noise. And so it went on and on, recapitulation without end.

The Introduction to the second part took us back to the painful audible
micromanagement of the Tenth’s ‘Adagio’: every subdivision of every beat
bludgeoned into the collective consciousness, every note a thing-in-itself,
apparently unconnected to any other, everything taken very, very slowly. There
was no sense of line, let alone of landscape — and that in this most
extraordinary of aural canvases. It felt like an unpleasant visit to the
dentist rather than a view of the forest, let alone a voyage into a world of
metaphysics. Though the strings sounded resplendent here, one could only regret
the sad waste of their talents. Later on, it became increasingly apparent that,
the skill of the players notwithstanding, both orchestra and hall were simply
too small. In a decent performance, that might have mattered more.

Back, then, to the slow progress of the second part. The chorus — and
there was little or no fault to find in any of the choral singing, always
impressive in tone and heft — entered to the most rigid of conducting, as if
at rehearsal speed. When Pater Ecstaticus responded, at something akin to a
reasonable tempo, that inevitably sounded disconnected from what had gone
before. Stephen Gadd, a late replacement for Brindley Sherratt, sounded
somewhat threadbare as Pater Profundus: whatever his vocal type (he was listed
as a baritone), ‘profundus’ was not the first description to come to mind.
Tempi continued to veer arbitrarily, though more often than not they continued
to be eked out, sub-division of beat to next sub-division, a test of endurance
that did not quite correspond with my understanding of the work. The Mater
Gloriosa seemed less to ‘float’ into view than to crawl. He-si-tant-ly.

Again, the soloists proved a mixed bunch. Vinke’s intonation wavered,
which is perhaps putting it mildly. (His voice seems to have deteriorated
markedly since the first occasions I heard him in Leipzig, where he truly
seemed a new Heldentenor hope.) Connolly again proved the most interesting and
vocally refulgent of the women, assisted by baleful trombones, which, in a rare
moment of musical insight, seemed to transport us back to the Second Symphony.
Anne-Marie Owens, however, was tremulous, and blurry of diction. Ailish Tynan
proved bizarrely lacking in purity of tone: an impetuous Gretchen is as bad an
idea as it sounds. The first syllable of ‘H¸lle’ (as in ‘der alten
H¸lle sich entrafft’) varied between at least three, probably more,
different pitches. As for her closing attempt to present Gretchen as diva, one
can only respond wearily that that is not quite what Mahler, let alone Goethe,
had in mind. Sarah Tynan, however, delivered her lines with palpable, winning
sincerity from one of the boxes.

Immediately after those words from the Mater Gloriosa’s, there came,
sadly, the only moment with true power to disconcert, to trouble. An
unfortunate double bass player fell from her chair and apparently knocked over
her instrument, having to be helped from the stage by other members of her
section. It was a highly unnerving accident, but the show, alas, went on.
Whatever redemption might be, Maazel’s performance lay beyond it. The
conclusion to the ‘Chorus Mysticus’, it will not surprise anyone to learn,
was dragged out mercilessly, quite negating occasional signs of life at its

I am not someone who usually notes, or indeed notices, durations of
performances, but there was something of a discrepancy between the
programme’s anticipated timing (eighty minutes) and a 7.30 p.m. concert,
which, whilst admittedly starting six or seven minutes late, came to an end
slightly after 9.15. The first movement alone must have lasted half an hour.
Slow tempi can often be revelatory: consider Klemperer. And then try not to
consider Maazel. Nevertheless, the moment Mahler was finally put out of his
misery, some members of the audience began to holler loudly and rose to their
feet. It was time to catch the bus home.

Mark Berry

image_description=Gustav Mahler c. 1907 [Color enhanced photo by Armando Bravi courtesy of International Gustav Mahler Society]
product=yesGustav Mahler: Symphony no.8 in E-flat major.
product_by=Sally Matthews (soprano, Magna Peccatrix); Ailish Tynan (soprano, Una púnitentium); Sarah Tynan (soprano, Mater Gloriosa); Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, Mulier Samaritana); Anne-Marie Owens (mezzo-soprano, Maria ∆gyptiaca); Stefan Vinke (tenor, Doctor Marianus); Mark Stone (baritone, Pater Ecstaticus); Stephen Gadd (baritone, Pater Profundus). The Choirs of Eton College (precentor and director of music: Tim Johnson). Philharmonia Voices (chorus master: Aidan Oliver). Philharmonia Chorus (chorus master: Stefan Bevier). BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Jackson). Philharmonia Orchestra. Conductor: Lorin Maazel. Royal Festival Hall, London. Sunday, 9 October 2011.
product_id=Above: Gustav Mahler c. 1907 [Color enhanced photo by Armando Bravi courtesy of International Gustav Mahler Society]