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A truly festive “Symphony of a Thousand”

By , 26/02/2010

MAHLER – Symphony No.8

(“Symphony of a Thousand”)

Twyla Robinson (sop.) / Marina Shaguch (sop.) / Sara Macliver (sop.) / Dagmar Peckova (m-sop.) / Bernadette Cullen (m-sop.) / Simon O’Neill (tenor) / Markus Eiche (baritone) / Martin Snell (bass)

New Zealand Youth Choir / Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir / Christchurch City Choir / Orpheus Choir of Wellington / Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)

New Zealand International Festival of the Arts Opening Concert Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 26th February, 2010

No, it wasn’t opera, but it was in its own way as spectacular, and as an occasion did give a “festive” kind of thrill for all concerned, which was exactly what was wanted. This most flamboyant of all of Mahler’s works (its nickname “Symphony of a Thousand” stemming from the first public performance in Munich in 1910, conducted by the composer, in which 858 singers and 171 instrumentalists took part) is perhaps the most perfect festival offering that symphonic music can provide. Of course the work can be performed quite satisfactorily with somewhat lesser numbers, as it was on this occasion (three hundred choral voices, eight soloists and a hundred-and-twenty instrumentalists) all of whom when singing and playing together made a wonderful noise in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre!

Spectacle was certainly one of the ingredients of the proceedings, to which was added the lustrous glow of the presence on the podium of one of the world’s most renowned musicians, Vladimir Ashkenazy. Originally finding fame and honour as one of the great interpreters of the romantic keyboard classics, Ashkenazy has for the past thirty years consolidated a “second career” as a conductor, though he continues to perform and record as a pianist. In the past I’d not associated him greatly with the music of Mahler, although he’s conducted the symphonies with various orchestras in different parts of the world, coming to them through his involvement with the music of Shostakovich, the latter a professed admirer of the older composer’s music. Ashkenazy has recorded several of the Mahler Symphonies with the Czech Philharmonic already, but over the next two years there are plans to both perform and record all of the symphonies with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, of which he’s Principal Conductor.

Along with Ashkenazy, the performance boasted an impressive lineup of soloists, one which included two New Zealanders presently building successful career portfolios as performers overseas, tenor Simon O’Neill and bass Martin Snell. With German baritone Markus Eiche the men made a formidable trio of voices, their strength and consistency overshadowing the women’s quartet, in which soprano Marina Shaguch alone seemed completely at home with her part, delivering her soaring lines with an ease and freedom that her colleagues couldn’t quite match. Fellow soprano Twyla Robinson approached her in fervour, even if her highest notes occasionally showed strain; while both mezzos, Dagmar Peckova and Bernadettte Cullen kept their lines secure and reliable throughout. If they seemed relatively underpowered in places when singing solo, they made up for it through their sterling ensemble work, especially amid the feverish energies of the Symphony’s first, and largely vocal part. Soprano Sara McLiver’s brief but mellifluous contribution to Part Two as Mater Gloriosa was another strength of the performance, her voice placed further back than the other soloists for an other-worldly effect, even if her all-too-workmanlike entrance and exit through the choral ranks somehow didn’t go with the ethereal quality of her singing.

Mahler’s intention with this work was to give the impression of “the whole universe beginning to sing and resound…..no longer human voices, but coursing planets and suns”. Ashkenazy very quickly set the music on its course at the start, galvanising his forces into action, almost before the audience had finished welcoming the great man onto the platform, and was settling itself down once again in preparation for the work’s beginning. The music was more fire and volatile energy in Ashkenazy’s hands than cosmic majesty, his precise beat keeping things moving, with the sound-surges erupting like geysers and blowholes, but without ever tipping over into stridency or incoherent noise. During Part One the few orchestra-only passages were packed with beautifully-articulated detail, the sheer effervescence of the string-playing more than compensating for a slight moment of imprecision at the final surge forward in tempo towards the end, where the build-up of overlapping voices and instrumental tones did indeed give the impression of the universe itself bursting into full-throated song.

By contrast with the “music of the spheres” aspect of the symphony’s opening, the second part takes us to the very heart of German Romanticism, Mahler’s setting of the final part of Goethe’s Faust. Here the orchestra paints a stark, rugged landscape representing a world of direct contact between nature and the human spirit – Goethe’s directions, reproduced with the text, speak of “Mountain, gorge, forest, cliff, desert”, with “Holy Anchorites…sheltering in rocky clefts”. Ashkenazy and the orchestra seemed to underline the contrasts within the instrumental prelude between the starker, more jagged and elemental writing, and passages of smoother, warmer legato harmonies, as if representing human aspiration and feeling seeking communion with these wild, rugged natural places. I felt the dry-ish aspect of the MFC robbed the hushed choral entries of much of their resonance and atmosphere, so that the musicians had to work that extra bit harder to convey the depth and fullness of Mahler’s vision – fortunately the performers possessed the necessary skill, concentration and focus to bring out the music’s raw power and sense of awe. Both Markus Eiche as Pater Ecstaticus and Martin Snell as Pater Profundus made the most of their wonderful declamations, the former energetic and passionate, the latter rich and sonorous, if ever-so-slightly troubled by the highest of his notes. As for Simon O’Neill, singing the part of Doctor Marianus, once one accepted a slightly “pinched” quality to his highest tones, his whole-hearted, engagingly radiant acclamation of the Mater Gloriosa, accompanied by the children’s and women’s choruses, readily evoked the presence of the “Eternal Feminine”, and even managed to transcend the incredibly cheesiness of the euphonium-accompanied string passage which Mahler wrote to depict Goethe’s directive “Mater Gloriosa soars into view”.

Throughout, the choruses gave their all, including the children’s choir whose singing made up in charm and point what it lacked in sheer volume, in places. After the magnificently energetic and all-encompassing fervour of Part One, the different choirs girded their loins and with Ashkenazy’s encouragement gave us exactly what the more diffuse Part Two demanded – long-breathed utterances interspersed with episodes of transcendent delight. What Mahler said about symphony – “It is like the world – it should contain everything!” was brought to triumphant fruition by the final “Chorus Mysticus”, whose gigantic paean of acclamation must have rumbled and shaken every fibre of being in the auditorium. Ashkenazy responded charmingly to the enthusiastic applause of the audience at the end by insisting upon repeated bows from the soloists, to further applause, and so on.

It’s well worth recording that, as if these goings-on within the Michael Fowler Centre weren’t enough to proclaim “festive occasion”, there were worlds wrought outside worlds for a wider audience, courtesy of good will and technological wizardry. The performance of the symphony was relayed “live” via big screen and speaker colonnades to a crowded Civic Square, an absolutely splendid gesture on the part of the festival organisers, the orchestra and, one supposes, Ashkenazy himself, as the concert itself had been sold out for many days beforehand. Happily, the weather was kind that evening, and the music-making was, according to my spies, conveyed vividly and truthfully enough to make for a memorable out-of-doors Mahlerian experience. So whether one was outside or within the hall, that sense of the spectacular and extraordinary was all around, which for an Arts Festival is, of course, just how it should have been.

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