Mahler’s 8th Symphony at Carnegie Hall

Last night I attended a performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8 at Carnegie Hall.  Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra are in the middle of performing a Mahler symphony cycle.  They were joined on this occasion by eight singers from the Marinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, and several choral groups: Orfeon Pamplones, Choral Arts Society of Washington (DC), and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy.  The stage was packed, and they still probably did not come close to fulfilling the work's nickname: Symphony of a Thousand.

Sitting in the balcony waiting for the performance to start, I reflected on some past performances of the piece in the same hall.  About a century ago, Leopold Stokowski, then the new musical director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, performed the U.S. premiere of the piece in Philadelphia, then packed his choruses, soloists and orchestra into a special train and brought them up to New York City to play the NYC premiere at Carnegie Hall.  (Stokowski performed the symphony again at Carnegie Hall around 1950 at a NY Philharmonic subscription concert, recordings of which survive and have been reissued in various degrees of sonic restoration on CD.)  I can also recall attending a performance of this work at Carnegie Hall by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony many years ago.   I'm sure there have been other performances of the piece there, although one of the current deficits of the hall — lack of a real pipe organ — was felt here, as the comparatively fake sound of the electric organ initiated the first movement.

I have problems with this piece.  Although I've been listening to recordings of it for decades now, and attended that Ozawa/BSO performance, this is a work with which I have not come to terms yet.  As of now, it strikes me as the weakest of Mahler's symphonies, from the point of view of melodic invention and directness of communication.  The first movement sets a medieval Latin hymn, and I think may be the only large-scale example of Mahler setting a Christian text.  The second movement is a musical setting of the final scene from Goethe's play, Faust, and it may be the closest that Mahler ever came to writing an opera.  That is, both movements represent Mahler attempting to write in a genre that was basically foreign to his compositional experience.  He was a significant opera conductor, having headed several of Europe's important opera houses, including the Vienna State Opera, and going on after the composition of this symphony to conduct German opera at the New York Metropolitan Opera House.  But somehow for me this second movement lacks the theatricality necessary to make it truly interesting as musical drama.  The first movement works a bit better for me, not least because it is relatively shorter.

I can recall from the Ozawa performance a sense of relentless forward motion that created the impression of a gigantic musical expression in one extended breath.  I did not have that feeling last night.  In fact, I found the first movement performance on the choppy and short-winded side, with momentum not being sustained through from the beginning to the end, so the piece seemed to sag at times.  The second movement quickly lapsed into boredom for me.   The orchestra sounded to me as if playing by rote at times, as if they hadn't fully absorbed this music and felt a bit uncomfortable with it and unwilling to unbend.  I suspect that performance of this piece in the midst of a tightly-scheduled performance cycle of all the Mahler symphonies is a bad idea, as it certainly needs more intensive rehearsal than it can receive in such a context.

So, I was waiting for this to be my breakthrough concert that would bring me to new levels of appreciation of this piece – as Gergiev's performance of Stravinsky's Les Noces did for me at the NY Philharmonic last season – but it was not to be.  The audience roared its approval at the end, but how could one not, given the gigantism  of the finale?  On the other hand, there may just be self-fulfilling prophecy here; put together a big piece with soloists, chorus and orchestra, end it with a blaze of glory, and people will ovate you….As for me, I'm still waiting for the revelation.

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