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Gustav Mahler c. 1907 [Color enhanced photo by Armando Bravi courtesy of International Gustav Mahler Society]
12 Oct 2011

Mahler 8, Royal Festival Hall

Following Lorin Maazel’s lifeless first movement from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony

Sally Matthews (soprano, Magna Peccatrix); Ailish Tynan (soprano, Una pœnitentium); Sarah Tynan (soprano, Mater Gloriosa); Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, Mulier Samaritana); Anne-Marie Owens (mezzo-soprano, Maria Ægyptiaca); 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.

Above: Gustav Mahler c. 1907 [Color enhanced photo by Armando Bravi courtesy of International Gustav Mahler Society]


(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 ‘Hülle’ (as in ‘der alten Hülle 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 opening.

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

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