It’s always a special occasion when Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #8 in Eb, also known as the “Symphony of a Thousand,” is performed. However, this series of performances in March of 2016 has even greater significance since it was one hundred years ago that the then 28 year old new Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra Leopold Stokowski gave the American premier, using literally over a thousand performers (including choruses). It was the performance that put Philadelphia in the map and, as WRTI announcer Greg Whiteside said “it hasn’t wavered since.” Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin commanded forces not only of a greatly expanded orchestra (including 8 French Horns, a mandolin, harmonium and full organ, plus an addition off stage brass band of 4 trumpets and 3 trombones, but also 8 soloists, two large choirs and a boys choir. It’s pretty big, and Maestro Nézet-Séguin held the reins very firmly. It was most fitting I suppose that not only was this performance celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Mahler 8th in America, but only a few days earlier Maestro Nézet-Séguin had celebrated his own 41st birthday. Nice.
Unfortunately, I think partly because of the problematic acoustics of Verizon Hall the sound was not very good. Mike placement was almost entirely focused on the strings and the chorus and soloists were very much in the background. As a result, it was difficult to get a good sense of how the choirs really sounded. Overall, from what I could determine from the sound it was quite satisfactory. With that caveat out of the way I thought Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation was right on spot. The dynamics were faithfully followed, for the most part, and the tempi were absolutely perfect!
Yet, for some reason getting good soloists for this piece has always been a problem. And this was no exception. The main difficulty is finding a lyric soprano capable of singing the Mater Gloriosa part, who also is usually the soprano (unnamed) solo during the beginning of the final chorus (Das Ewige-Weibliche — The Eternal-Feminine). This section requires the soprano to unobtrusively approach and then effortlessly pick out (or “float” to) a pianissimo high C. I’ve never understood why conductors over and over again: Bernstein, Solti, Haitink, etc. almost invariably choose the wrong soprano to do this. Of the dozen or more recordings and performances I’ve heard of this piece only two have had a soprano who actually gets it right: 1) Donald Runnicles 2010 performance with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, which in this case Erin Wall (Una Poenitentium here in Phila.) was Magna Peccatrix, but also did the high C and did it beautifully; and 2) a 1960 outdoor festival performance in Vienna with Dimitri Mitropoulos, with all of its shortcomings, was more than compensated with Mimi Coertse’s Mater Gloriosa and her absolutely impeccable, astonishing pianississimo C from which she grows the most delicate crescendo. I can only assume that this singing was precisely what Mahler imagined. I have never heard ANYBODY, no matter how famous, do this so perfectly. Of course, as you can imagine, unfortunately Angela Meade* fell a little short. She was an unfortunate choice, she had a total lack of control, resulting in the kind of straight tone one experiences from strain, albeit fairly quiet (about mp), but strain just the same. It wouldn’t mean so much if this wasn’t such crucial point the score; which is why it baffles me so much that conductors treat this moment so cavalierly that one would think that they’re just thinking: “Oh, she’s a lyric we’ll have her sing the C,” without hearing it first.
OK, enough of the “high C.” Among the other soloists interestingly enough two others who have recently sung this work together stood out as exceptional: the previously mentioned Erin Wall and bass John Reylea who sang Pater Profundis with Ms. Wall in 2010. Among the other soloists special maention needs to be made for mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Bishop who was called in at the last minute to replace Stephanie Blythe as Mulier samaritana and did it with aplomb. Also Mihoko Fujimura (Mater Ægyptiaca) had a rich almost velvety sound closer to a contralto. Baritone Markus Werba did quite nicely in his short Pater Esctaticus solo, although he had to belt out his high G contrary to Mahler’s p indication; but, then again, I have yet to hear a baritone hit an high G softly then crescendo as the score indicates; methinks Gus was asking just a little too much. I mean, seriously folks, if Hermann Prey couldn’t do who can? The tenor, Anthony Dean Griffey (Doctor Marianus) seemed adequate to the task it was, again difficult to discern, as in case of all the singers, because of the less than satisfactory sound. Nevertheless, Lisette Oropesa sang Mater Gloriosa most delicately and serenely. Her pianissimo high B was sublime and gave me hope that she would be the one to sing the “zieht uns hinan” C. I should have realised that would have been impossible since she would have had to hightail down from one of the upper tiers of the auditorium down to the stage. It might have been possible; but, it would have asked too much for her to give that note what she more than likely normally would have given it. That was very unfortunate indeed.
What I really liked about this performance was that Maestro Nézet-Séguin was not afraid of letting the organ be heard. More than the 2nd Symphony, this one has a substantial organ part, pedal runs included. I could kiss Michael Stairs for giving that part everything it is suppose to have without exceeding the composer’s wishes. MWAH! Again, I can only imagine how much better everything just have been live. Unfortunately, now that I’m in Boston I couldn’t get to hear it in person and had to settle for the broadcast; I couldn’t hear the mandolin and could only barely hear the harmonium. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, the singing, it seemed to me, was treated very much as secondary by the engineers and the strings over emphasised.
So, what about the choirs? As if I’m not in enough trouble already, let me say this: since it was not made clear to those not present I couldn’t tell who was Choir I or Choir II. I think overall (again compensating for the crappy sound) Choir I had a fuller, dare I say richer, sound than Choir II. Now this difference is slight. Both choirs sounded quite well, but, the sopranos and tenors in Choir II, in the softer sections, lacked warmth and richness of tone, i.e., no vibrato (the kind of English sound that Simon Rattle likes). As I said, I don’t know who was whom, I just hope Westminster was Choir I. In any event all I can is that a John Finley Williamson, Warren Martin, Elaine Brown, or George Lynn choir wouldn’t have needed any help. I know, because they didn’t. Notwithstanding, it’s always great to hear this piece performed, especially, as in this case, in a most satisfactory performance indeed.