Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (people seldom mention it anymore, but it’s in E-flat major) was the last Mahler work to be premiered during the composer’s lifetime (first performed under the composer’s baton in 1910), and also the only one to have been an instant hit. Its nickname, “Symphony of a Thousand” was given by the impresario for the premiere, Emil Gutmann, and though Mahler disapproved of it, it was quite literally true on that original occasion, since as the vintage Michael Steinberg program note that accompanied Saturday’s Tanglewood performance pointed out, there were 858 singers, 171 instrumentalists, plus Mahler, making 1,030. The symphony also seems to be the first one to be choral in its entirety.
All of Mahler’s symphonies had extra-musical literary or philosophical foundations, but in this one Mahler went beyond even himself, intending to create an entire universe devoted to celebrating the creative and redemptive force of love, and in doing so conjoined two unlikely and disparate texts, the medieval hymn to the Holy Spirit Veni creator spiritus and the final scene of Goethe’s Faust, Part II, wherein Goethe turned the moral of the medieval Faust tale on its head by arranging Faust’s heavenly redemption. Having an extended cantata at the end of a symphony was not entirely without precedent—Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony does it—but the quasi-operatic setting of a dramatic scene was unique. That said, the inherent classicist in Mahler could not be satisfied without providing some kind of structure, and although it lasts in most performances for nearly half an hour, the first movement is in proper sonata form, with both its principal themes being gradually worked into the finale to furnish not only philosophical but structural unity to the whole (with the leaping interval of a seventh in the principal theme converted to a ninth to signify the ultimate triumph). Pretty cool!
The performance Saturday, conducted by BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons, came on the occasion of the Leonard Bernstein memorial concert, capping the summer’s Tanglewood Music Center program. The orchestra consisted of the TMC Orchestra, made up of the student “fellows” of the Center, augmented by a number of Boston Symphony players. The three participating choruses were the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the Boston University Tanglewood Institute Chorus, and the American Boychoir. The vocal soloists were Erin Wall, Christine Goerke and Erin Morley, sopranos (taking the roles of Magna peccatrix, Una poenitentium and Mater gloriosa, respectively, in the second part), Mihoko Fujimura and Jane Henschel, mezzos (Mulier Samaritana and Maria Aegypiaca, with Fujimura coming in at the last minute to replace Lioba Braun), Klaus Florian Vogt, tenor (Doctor Marianus), Matthias Goerne, baritone (Pater ecstaticus), and Ain Anger, bass (Pater profundus). Lucky Bostonians were able to see all this on the big screen in Copley Square (do let us know how it came off, those of you who did).
With big forces and big ideas such as Mahler packed into this symphony, one would expect a massive impact in the performance, and in this case one would not have been disappointed. Beginning with a massive blast from the Æolian-Skinner organ, the first movement opened with a bright, pointed and piercing entry from the chorus, with a propulsion, partly resulting from Nelsons’s charging tempo, that never slackened, even when the pace did. Nelsons’s famously kinetic conducting style has nowhere been put to better use than in his carefully articulated gestures to chorus and orchestra, shaping every detail (and showing the audience just how he was doing it, a not insignificant communication in itself). There was clarity in every moment, even the most thunderous. The soloists, whose placement at the front of the stage rather than in front of the chorus was, we were told, a nearly last-minute idea, could not otherwise have cut through the choral and orchestral sound, but they certainly did, brilliantly in the case of Wall and Goerke with powerful tessituras and not a hint of screechiness.
One can understand the practical reasons for doing so, for the audience as well as for the performers, but the decision to take an intermission after the first movement had the inevitable effect of dulling the emotional continuity of the symphony, not the least being the contrast between the blaring end of the first movement and the incomparable hush at the beginning of the second. That opening was spine-tinglingly spooky, with Nelsons bringing out a carefully gradated stepwise long-distance crescendo and maintaining admirable tautness while doing so. This scene from Faust gave the soloists much more to do, dramatically and musically, than in the more conventionally structured first movement, and they were all admirable, with superb diction and expressive dramatic projection. Vogt in particular, whose Doctor Marianus had the most extensive part, was beatific and evocative. The choruses, too, brought sublimity to many of their passages, and in particular the children’s choir, representing the spirits of those who had died at birth, were strong when called upon (really only at their entrance) and later supplicating and consoling with purity and innocence. Finally, Morley, positioned high up in the rafters stage right (many audience members searched in vain to see where that ethereal voice was coming from) delivered the Mater gloriosa with stunning purity in an elegant coloratura. We’re told it takes fully six minutes to clamber down from that position, so Morley had to wait till the second curtain call for her deserved kudos. Nelsons held up the score during the applause, a “tradition” (if it is that) started by Webern when he conducted the work in the 1920s.