Sunday, 9 October 2011

Philharmonia/Maazel - Mahler, Symphony no.8, 9 October 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Mahler - Symphony no.8 in E-flat major

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
Lorin Maazel (conductor)

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


Orpheus said...

Just a brief thought on placing of vocal soloists in concert performances. There is an argument that if you put the soloists behind the orchestra you are allowing the orchestra to hear and accompany them as they would in an orchestra pit in an opera house, rather than allowing them to feel disconnected (with the likely result that they will play louder). It can be a good idea in concert performances of opera, for example if there is a choir area that can be used as a makeshift 'stage' (e.g. Haim's "Poppea" at the Royal Albert Hall in, I think, 2008). But I think I agree that for something like Mahler 8 that is meant as concert music it's not.

JPH said...

I understand that reasoning but in practice I don't think it works - you can't deny that the lack of a pit means that the balance is affected. The orchestral sound seems to be 'in the way', and the audience's potential sense of connection is reduced.I'm a singer and I always find it a bad idea when a conductor suggests this kind of arrangement; I think it has more to do with conductors' desire for control.

Anonymous said...

Mahler had this configuration in Munich but the hall was smaller, more resonant and the soloists were raised much higher

EC said...

Sorry to hear this - only wondering why you went to Maazel's Mahler 8, when soloists from the Lucerne Festival Orchestra were playing just next door? Tonight, with Abbado, the orchestra's playing was simply beyond words. I just can't wait to hear them again tomorrow evening. Also fantastic to have Abbado back in London and looking so well. I hope you will have at least made it to one of their performances..

Mark Berry said...

Sometimes one makes bad choices... Yes, I'll be there on Tuesday.

J-E Stubbings said...

I first heard the 8th on the Sony recording with Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic - and although not my favourite Mahler Symphony - I always enjoyed it very much. (I should mention at this point that I am a lapsed trombone player with lots of enthusiasm for listening - but no musical training and clearly nothing of the expertise and high expectations of 'Boulezian')

The performance on Sunday was slightly strange in some ways - there were a couple of moments in Part I when the music became almost unrecognisable compared to the recording of Maazel (from the 80s I think) - and perhaps this was due to the very slow tempi in the quieter sections. As Boulezian mentioned there was a bad split from the horns - but these things happen - more worrying was a very messed up entry (I think) from one or more of the double basses close to the beginning of Part II - it looked as if they weren't able to follow Maazel's directions. Suffice to say that there was a bit of a glare in that direction - in fact the maestro didn't look very happy at any point in the performance - least of all when all hell broke out in the double basses again towards the end.

All that said - for someone like me who doesn't get to go to that many concerts (I've seen this piece once before at the Proms) - there were still moments of real exhilaration. The finales of both parts of the symphony are as close as you can get to a 'wall of sound' without electric amplification - it makes me think of the musical equivalent of a battering ram hammering away at the gates of heaven. I do wonder whether the current popularity of Mahler (I had one spare ticket and almost started a riot when I sold it to a Latvian student at the back of the queue for returns) reflects an unsatisfied spiritual longing in our largely post-religious society.

A final comment on the orchestra - I do rate the Philharmonia very highly. Perhaps they just don't have a great relationship with Maestro Maazel. I saw them with Salonen about a year ago playing Symphonie Fantastique - which I had gone off a bit over the years - and they absolutely blew me away with the drama and excitement of the playing - it was like hearing it for the first time.

Robert said...

Here is another reviewer on the same performance' reflecting far more closely what I heard:

As far as this No.8 was concerned, his phenomenal conducting technique enabled the detail of Mahler’s huge score to speak in a way that served the spirit of the music. Sure, his approach was analytical, but only in the way that he secured the extraordinary range of connections that music makes – and that needs a clear head so that the symphony’s teeming emotional world can sing for itself. To see Maazel’s extreme economy of gesture and to hear the quality of response from the players was totally compelling and involved us in the strange, symbiotic process of re-creation.(Peter Reed.)

I thought the 'slow movement introducing Part II was beautifully paced and phrased, far better than the recent Prom performance of Mahler 8. The mater gloriosa section was wondefully conducted and played. The final climactic ending was thrillingly done.

Robert said...

I seem to have been at a different concert. Look to this alternative review posted by Peter Read:

As far as this No.8 was concerned, his phenomenal conducting technique enabled the detail of Mahler’s huge score to speak in a way that served the spirit of the music. Sure, his approach was analytical, but only in the way that he secured the extraordinary range of connections that music makes – and that needs a clear head so that the symphony’s teeming emotional world can sing for itself. To see Maazel’s extreme economy of gesture and to hear the quality of response from the players was totally compelling and involved us in the strange, symbiotic process of re-creation.

I agree. Some particular highlights were the beautifully paced and articulated 'slow movement' introduction to Part II, the ethereal playing of the Mater Gloriosa section, and the build-up of the final thrilling climax.

A great performance.

Mark Berry said...

It just goes to show how differently one can hear the same performance. I agree re the disappointing Proms rendition (also reviewed on here), though I suppose we should not have expected any more from the BBC SO's mostly absentee principal conductor. From the four live performances I have heard (also Gergiev, in St Paul's, which was impossible to hear properly on account of the venue), only Boulez in Berlin has convinced me: (I was lucky enough to hear him rehearse the work too.)

I'm afraid I do not understand Peter Reed's reference to Maazel's 'extreme economy of gesture'. Whatever the musical results, the visual impression was anything but economical, more redolent of Bernstein-like grandstanding, albeit without Bernstein's passionate commitment and re-creative qualities.

Stephen Rex said...

I'm with Boulezian on this one. I was singing in the chorus and the tempi were agonising. But I did enjoy more of the soloists than you - I thought Sally Matthews did a fantastic job given the lugubrious (or rather non-existant) phrasing, and though I agree Ailish Tynan wasn't exactly innocence incarnate I thought her tone and expressiveness never faltered.