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Gustav Mahler
18 Jul 2010

Mahler’s 8th at Royal Albert Hall

A performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony could only ever be relatively underwhelming; even a car crash of a performance would impress in some sense, indeed most likely in quite a few.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no.8 in E-flat major

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 Müller-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 Bělohlávek (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Friday 16 July 2010.

Above: Gustav Mahler


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 Bělohlávek. 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, Bělohlávek 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) gemäßigter; immer sehr fließend.’ 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. Bělohlávek 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 Müller-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: ‘Vergönne 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, Bělohlávek 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 schönsten 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

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