Wellington Scoop

Arts Festival review: Mahler’s Eighth Symphony

Review by Tyler Hersey
Mahler Symphony No 8
Conducted by Valdimir Ashkenazy
Michael Fowler Centre, Live Relay in Civic Square

With even the cheap seats inside the sold out Michael Fowler Centre priced at $140, it’s no surprise that a sea of listeners blanketed Civic Square for a free audio and video feed showing Mahler’s 8th Symphony being performed in the building behind them.

Commanding full orchestra, eight vocal soloists and five combined choirs, conductor Valdimir Ashkenazy pushed his group to the stratospheric heights demanded by the epic score, yet more capably revealed the subtle modernism of the work’s quieter adagio and scherzo sections in the second movement.

Before its Munich premiere one hundred years ago, Mahler’s massive work was dubbed the “Symphony of a Thousand” in an early feat of concert promotion for a wildly successful event attended by scores of European and artistic royalty. An instantly impressive piece of undeniable power and surprising grace, the 8th worked its magic equally well on a contemporary Wellington audience, powerful as a rock concert but lifting gracefully into the night air during delicate flute, harp and organ passages.

For the opening event of the NZ International Arts Festival, organizers certainly put on a big show, employing Sydney Symphony artistic director Ashkenazy to stage one of the most epic works regularly performed today. Built on the foundation of Mahler’s early compositions for vocal soloists, it employs a cornucopia of singers and vocal groupings, including challenging work for youth choir.

The half-hour long first movement is an often explosive setting of a devotional Latin hymn, with brass and contrapuntal voices crossing and combining into solid sheets of sound. New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill led the ensemble, his powerful voice piercing the occasionally muddled fanfare. While the looseness of the orchestra and choirs let them soar to impressive heights, Mahler may have intended for each voice and instrument to be heard more distinctly than they were last night. The pacing was also slightly erratic, glossing over important connecting passages in favour of hitting the climaxes with as much force as possible. When shown onscreen, Russian born Ashkenazy authoritatively whipped his arms and baton to control the mass of performers stacked ceiling-high. Sopranos Annalena Persson, Marina Shaguch and Sara Macliver each contributed to exciting passages in which layer upon layer of sound combined into a celestial mass of harmonies ringing through the night air.

Highlighting the duality of character in man and the separation between heavenly existence and earthly reality, the text switches from the ethereal Latin devotion of the first movement to a German setting of Goethe’s Faust for the second. Vienna State Opera baritone Markus Eiche brought European authority to his parts along with a lightness and accuracy of pronunciation which rendered the German section clearer than the somewhat tangled Latin opening. With all singers working closely from the text, the whole ensemble settled in and allowed the music to breathe in a patient, fairly long reading.

The opening adagio section in E-flat minor pulsed with emotion, featuring slow string bass lines and widely-spread brass that sounded at times like the jazz standards which would be written in the decades following the composition of this symphony. These introspective passages were particularly effective for the outdoor crowd, providing relief from the sturm und drang of the first movement and the equally rousing finale. Each singer was given ample room to tell their story and display unique style as their characters described why they continue to retain hope and belief in an often dark world.

The sombre tone of the scherzo section forged a more personal connection than the massed voices of the first movement and finale. Impressive though they were, the forceful visions which opened and closed the performance slightly smeared Mahler’s heavenly vibrations and could have benefitted from more separation between parts. But with so many musicians the concert was a visual delight, and the outdoor audience could have benefitted from a larger screen. However, for a free event surrounded by concrete the sound quality was clear and rich, and organizers should be commended for providing this cost-free summer treat.

Performance featured:
Annalena Persson, Marina Shaguch, Sara Macliver (sopranos)
Dagmar Peckova, Bernadette Cullen (mezzos)
Simon O’Neill (tenor), Markus Eiche (baritone)
Martin Snell (bass)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)
New Zealand Youth Choir
Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir
Christchurch City Choir
Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St Paul (augmented)

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