Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mahler in Sequence: Boulez's Symphony of a Thousand

Mahler Symphony # 8... "Symphony of a Thousand"... "a circus", "bewildering"... some say it is not even a symphony at all but more of a two part dramatic oratorio. Which ever it is, a performance is always an event. When it is at Carnegie Hall with the Staatskapelle Berlin under the direction of the legendary Pierre Boulez, it is an event to savor. The sold out hall was standing room only, scalpers we doing brisk business outside the hall.

With the 8th, you can always count on a full stage, with the chorus of 2-300 singers and 8 solo singers, plus a massive orchestra (6 winds each, 8 horns and trumpets each, 3 percussionists, 3 harps, piano, harmonium, celesta, organ, mandolin, strings and all the bells and whistles). It was as an impressive a sight to behold as it was to hear.

My balcony seat was sandwiched between two conductors, one professional, one rank amateur, which made for a somewhat amusing evening. My guest, Maestro Damon (the professional), knew the piece well and anticipated his favorite sections with deft (and on the beat) hand movements and subtle gestures. Paul (the amateur), who had been at every performance of the series, waved and gesticulated at will, precariously leaning over the balcony railing always quivering in anticipation of his favorite passages. A couple of times he achieved that rarely experienced "orgasmic-cosmic-ecstatic-epiphany-nirvana" mode, eyes rolled back, shaking and moaning in joy. It was a sight to behold.

Normally, that would have driven me to drink heavily (not that I need much of an excuse), but that is what Mahler's music can do like no other music can; speak to you, move you to tears, elicit sighs of wonder and satisfaction and make a grown New Yorker act like a blathering fool in Carnegie Hall of all places.

Although I have read a couple of critics that absolutely panned the performance, I felt Boulez's performance was very valid, frequently exciting with a breathtaking focus that really accentuated the chamber-like quality of this music. If you look or listen closely, the whole schmeer of forces is used only a few times. Thus quite frequently, the vast selection of instruments and voices are used delicately and sparingly, more for vast color and shade rather than overwhelming sound. If anything, Boulez is a master at clarity, and thus details seldom heard in recordings or perhaps even other live performances were on full display, never dallied upon to ruin the overall picture but spotlighted as part of Mahler's vast plan.

The first movement, a vast hymn "Veni, Creator Spiritus", started out on the deliberate and somewhat cool side, a Boulez characteristic that is either loved or loathed. The movement came alive at the phrase "Accende lumen sensibus, Infunde amoren cordibus" (enlighten our senses {or more literally kindle our senses with light}, pour your love into our hearts), brilliantly connecting the reverent, medieval mode of this movement to the sensuous, ecstatic paean to love and the "ever-womanly" that is the second part. A more fervorent opening would have obscured this detail, missing the subtle connection between the two contrasting movements.

The soloists were first rate through out, Hanno Müller-Brachmann was a clear, ringing baritone, Christine Brewer wonderful as always ( I am prejudiced I know), Michelle De Young exhibited her glorious, often dark yet clear mezzo, and Robert Holl was a commanding bass. Tenor Stephen Gould was a bit on the strident side, but not to the point of discomfort. The Westminster Symphonic Choir and American Boychoir performed admirably, but were a bit undermanned. A few more voices would have been perfect. Yet, only a few times were they overwhelmed and frequently, the smaller choir (if 200 some voices can be called small) contributed to the clarity of the performance. Boulez led the forces onward to a glowing climax, the brass in the balcony adding their red-gold, blazing sound to the fabric.

The orchestral introduction to part 2 was one of the slower I have encountered. The choral entrance (Waldung, sie schwankt heran) hushed and detached. Wrong?? Odd?? Maybe so, but making perfect sense in Boulez's vision. The clear acoustics of Carnegie Hall illuminated the shimmering harps, plunking mandolin and the frequent and excellent solos from the concert master. The soloists here are assigned roles from this final scene of Faust; Pater Profundus, Pater Ecstaticus, Dr Marianus, Magna Peccatrix, Mulier Samaritana, Una Poenitentium (Gretchen), Maria Aegyptiaca, and from the balcony high above, Mater Gloriosa. Sylvia Schwartz figuratively and literally soared over the hall in her brief but climactic appearance as the Mater Gloriosa. Gould, as Dr Marianus, softened his tone but still implored us all to "Blicket auf zum Retterblick" (look up to the redeeming gaze) and all assembled did just that as he and the grand chorus moved inexorably towards the ringing, glorious final pages; voices, extra brass and organ in full sound.

The sniping critics be silent. No this was not perfect, what is, really?? Little ol' me could fill this review with places where I thought something could have been different. This performance was one of those rare events in music that come so infrequently, my maestro neighbors were both speechless. I will remember it for years to come. When you leave 2500 people in stunned silence, their minds racing to catch up with what they just witnessed, you have succeeded. Bravo Maestro Boulez. Bravo all.

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