Mahler in Manchester: Take Eight

Mahler in Manchester 2010 LogoThe Mahler in Manchester con­cert series is reaching its climax as we clamber up to the final, vast sym­phonies whose am­bi­tions outdid all pre­de­cessors and Mahler 8 is the largest of them all, com­bining the forces of BBC Philharmonic, Hallé, Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Choir and CBSO Chorus, not to men­tion con­ductor Mark Elder and the eight vocal so­loists. The journey has been an in­ter­esting one, en­livened by the con­ceit of pairing each sym­phony with some new, spe­cially com­mis­sioned music, usu­ally bearing some re­la­tion­ship with its sym­phonic cousin. The new works have been vari­ously suc­cessful (as are, of course, the Mahler sym­phonies) and while the hap­less tinkering of Uri Caine’s piano playing fre­quently being swal­lowed by the dir­ec­tion­less mélange that was his Scenes from Childhood pro­grammed along­side Mahler 5 may not have pleased everyone, it is the po­ten­tial for serendipity that is ap­pealing. Besides, as Gustav’s grand­daughter Marina notes in the pro­gramme, ‘an open, curious, de­manding ear, willing to listen, al­ways searching for some­thing lovely, some­thing true in the music of our own time — this is truly hon­ouring Mahler’s music.’

Sunday night’s pairing with Mahler 8 couldn’t have been more fit­ting. The ec­static re­li­gious ele­ment of the sym­phony was echoed in a 20-minute im­pro­visa­tion on the Gregorian hymn ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’, the text of which forms the first part of the Mahler, per­formed by or­ganist Olivier Latry. Latry has held one of the four posts as or­ganist at Notre Dame de Paris since 1985 and is steeped in the French tra­di­tion of organ im­pro­visa­tion as the main mu­sical ac­com­pani­ment to the Catholic mass. This tra­di­tion is strik­ingly mod­ernist when one com­pares it to the litur­gical organ tra­di­tion of the British Isles and Latry’s mu­sical an­cestry can clearly be traced back to the de­vout, if un­orthodox, Catholic Olivier Messiaen, who held a sim­ilar post at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité for 61 years, until his death.

Opening with the unadul­ter­ated plain­chant line, which dates from the 9th Century, Latry quickly set about moving through kal­eido­scopic worlds of timbral and mo­tivic vari­ation, ex­ploiting every pos­sible colour and re­gister of the 5,500-pipe Bridgewater organ. He moved with ease and agility through raucous se­quences of chords flung about the pipes to vanish and re­veal the quiet, air-shaking depths of the lowest pedal notes. High bab­bling tex­tures with an al­most elec­tronic feel, re­min­is­cent of the gurg­ling boys’ voices in Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, segued into gaping horror movie chords. The im­pro­visa­tion seemed to be­come a series of in­ter­locking chor­ales and arias, and its sym­phonic am­bi­tion was clear as the theme re­turned and evolved be­fore burning out in the — only slightly in­con­gruous — final, fiery glow of an apo­ca­lyptic­ally joyous wall of major key sound. That is, of course, pre­cisely how Mahler 8 fin­ishes and des­pite Latry’s note in the pro­gramme that ‘an im­pro­visa­tion must be spon­tan­eous […] I won’t listen to Mahler’s Symphony No.8 be­fore the per­form­ance,’ one won­ders whether he may have at least half-planned the ending’s spirit.

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is an un­usual work, closer in many ways to an ora­torio than a tra­di­tional sym­phony, but one of the most sur­prising things about Mahler’s music today — a cen­tury since this symphony’s first per­form­ance — is its mod­ernity. The sym­phony is re­plete with jagged, dis­sonant lines, com­posite sounds built from cymbal at­tacks and string de­cays, strange jux­ta­pos­i­tions such as choir and way­ward solo vi­olin, and of course the har­monium and man­dolins ex­panding the standard or­ches­tral palette yet fur­ther. The first chorus of Part Two, gently dis­turbing an or­ches­tral still­ness with syllable-by-syllable text set­ting, is still stun­ning and was per­formed with great re­straint by the massed choirs, evoking Goethe’s awe­struck po­etry. The sub­lime quiet of the pre-climax final stanza, ‘Alles ver­gäng­liche / Ist nur ein Gleichnis’ [Everything trans­itory / is but an image], was sung with sim­ilar del­icacy. A good vocal so­loist is hard to find, let alone eight, but Gerald Finley (of course) stood out as Pater Ecstaticus. The Canadian bari­tone must rarely have so little to do in a con­cert — just twelve short lines — but his voice and stage pres­ence rarely fail. Second sop­rano Aga Mikolaj, singing the role of the pen­itent, also im­pressed with con­trol and feeling as she sang ‘Neige, neige / Du Ohnegleiche’.

With 121 in­stru­ment­al­ists, 383 chorus mem­bers and 8 so­loists on stage, Mahler was never going to end the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ quietly. After the awe-filled hush of ‘Alles ver­gäng­liche’ the or­chestra gradu­ally stirs be­fore rising to one of the loudest and most or­gasmic fi­nales of the rep­er­toire. The Bridgewater Hall can only rarely have been treated to such a grip­ping and phys­ic­ally powerful sound that con­veys the pas­sion and strength of five hun­dred plus per­formers emptying the last ounces of their en­ergy into those final notes. This is the pas­sage of which Maher wrote, ‘that the uni­verse be­gins to vi­brate and re­sound. These are no longer human voices, but planets and suns ro­tating.’ It was greeted with rap­turous ap­plause and a standing ovation.

The sym­phony is ded­ic­ated to Mahler’s wife, Alma, and, to re­turn to Messiaen, it is striking how, 40 years be­fore Turangalîla, the com­bin­a­tion of ec­static, human love and a be­lief in the holy joy of God res­ulted in a mu­sical out­pouring on a sim­il­arly large scale. It takes a lot of time, plan­ning and ef­fort to ar­range a per­form­ance of this sym­phony — it took Mahler three years after its com­pos­i­tion to or­ganise the premiere — and the col­lab­or­ative ef­forts of BBC Philharmonic, Hallé and the various choirs should be cel­eb­rated as a won­derful mu­sical gift. It is the turn of the Ninth Symphony in a few weeks. It will take quite some­thing to out­shine Sunday’s performance.

This entry was written by Chris, posted on Monday, 3 May 2010 at 3:25 pm, filed under Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

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