Mahler’s Symphony No. 8

ARTS, Music

NZSO with Vladimir Ashkenazy performs Mahler’s Symphony No. 8
New Zealand International Arts Festival, Wellington | February 26

The premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony took place one hundred years ago in the concert hall of Munich’s new International Exhibition Centre, an immense construction of glass and steel. Richard Strauss, Thomas Mann and Max Reinhardt were among the huge crowd present for the first performance of the work billed—in a ‘Barnum & Bailey’ fashion that would impress contemporary marketers—as the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’.

It’s a moniker that has stuck, in spite of being misleading for most performances. The premiere did indeed feature over one thousand performers, but far fewer than that are required, and the recent Festival-opening NZSO performance in Wellington, with (a still-impressive) near 400 musicians, showed that balance needn’t be an issue with fewer than half the titular number.

The Eighth Symphony is an oddity, with its strange bipartite structure, its idiosyncratic use of solo and choral voices (it was the first completely choral symphony), and its conjunction of religious and secular texts. In a sense, Mahler prefigured postmodernism, with his Symphonies exploring a wildly eclectic range of sounds and influences. ‘A symphony must be like the world,’ he said. ‘It must embrace everything.’

The outrageous practical demands of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony means that it is rarely performed but seems custom-built for a Festival performance. And fourteen years on from its previous appearance at the New Zealand International Arts Festival (in 1996 under Markus Stenz), the work, combined with the presence of pianist-conductor recording superstar Vladimir Ashkenazy, proved an irresistible draw card, this year’s concert selling out in hours, and proving again (if there were really any doubt) that ‘classical’ music of consequence is far from dead. In a feat of organizational genius, those who missed out on a ticket were able to watch the concert gratis in Civic Square or to listen and watch the performance live on the Radio New Zealand website (another timely reminder of the valuable service provided by our state broadcaster).

And those who made the effort were rewarded with a remarkable spectacle. The first movement of the Symphony is a Latin setting of a Catholic hymn, the massed voices entering immediately and rarely stopping throughout the movement’s relentlessly ecstatic half hour. The combined forces of Michael Fulcher’s Orpheus Choir and Wellington Cathedral Choir, Brian Law’s Christchurch City Choir, and The New Zealand Youth Choir and Voices New Zealand (directed by Karen Grylls, one of New Zealand music’s greatest assets) provided choral singing that was the distinct highlight of the evening. In spite of what appeared to be somewhat unclear direction from Ashkenazy, the choirs showed precision and superb dynamic control, seldom overpowered by the Orchestra at full tilt, and beautifully handling the welcome moments of lighter scoring.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra gave an unwaveringly polished performance throughout, with the strings and an augmented brass section showing the requisite stamina over 80 minutes to give explosive climactic moments. While some of the more dense polyphonic sections in the first part were rather murky, this seems more a fault of Mahler’s score than of this particular performance.

In the more expansive second movement, the eight vocal soloists come to the fore. This movement sets the final part of Goethe’s Faust, a reflection on ‘redemption through love’. New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill was not always clear above the throng, and it was those with the smallest parts who impressed: baritone Markus Eiche, bass Martin Snell (the standout performer in New Zealand Opera’s recent production of Eugene Onegin), and soprano Sarah Macliver, who theatrically appeared above the orchestra resplendent in white and silver as ‘Mater Gloriosa’, an idealization of Mahler’s wife Alma.

Mahler’s Eighth is by no means his greatest work, but like all of his Symphonies, it is near impossible not to be drawn in by the tsunamic force of his all-embracing music. The unanimous standing ovation that followed this performance was the only reasonable response.