Classical Music Review: New Releases

San Francisco Symphony performs Mahler's 8th Symphony. 10 June, Davies Hall, San Francisco,CA. Vocal soloists: soprano Lauren Flanigan (Magna Peccatrix); soprano Christine Brewer(Una Poenitentium); soprano Dominique Labelle (Mater Gloriosa); mezzo- soprano Michelle DeYoung (Mulier Samaritana); mezzo-soprano Jill Grove (Maria Aegyptiaca); tenor Anthony Dean Griffey (Doctor Marianus); baritone Stephen Powell (Pater Ecstaticus); Franz Hawlata (Pater Profundus). San Francisco Symphony Chorus; San Francisco Girls Chorus; San Francisco Boys Chorus. Michael Tilson Thomas.

We've come a long way since Toscanini declared that Mahler was music written on toilet paper. The composer's works are now the bread and butter of most major orchestras, and the nine completed symphonies are given in cycles,or rotated every several years. Though Mahler's 8th (1906-07) is not his greatest work -- the 2nd, 6th and 9th are better -- it's still one of the most ambitious pieces of Western music ever written, and his most public and imposing. With its broad spiritual aspirations -- nothing less than the salvation of man -- and thunderous volume it's also a crowd pleaser. In fact the 8th is probably as loud as Varese's Ameriques (1918-21), though not as much fun. Mahler, after all, was a sort of summation of the Austro-German tradition, and pain more than pleasure, or pleasure arrived at after, or through pain, seems to be his guiding light here.

The ear-splitting opening movement, "Veni, Creator, Spiritus," is not like getting seduced with a feather. Mahler's setting of this straightforward 9th century invocation to the Holy Spirit is loud, relentless and grand, with punishing vocal and instrumental writing. Even at 22 minutes here it seemed to have been going on forever, and at a fever clip too. And though the combined choruses -- 190 in the symphony's, dressed in black, 45 in the girls, in red jackets and skirts, and vests; and 20 in the boys, in navy sweater vests and slacks, white shirts and ties -- and soprano Lauren Flanigan, gave it their all, as did the orchestra, especially the winds and brass, I still felt like I was being punished for something I didn't do. Like the patron who screamed "OK, I confess!!", at a performance of Reich's Four Organs.

Things improved in Part II. This setting of the final scene from Goethe's Faust II is far more imaginative, and the opportunities for musical evocation are more varied. And what composer could resist writing music for the stage directions, especially the opening one: "Mountain glens, forests, rock, solitude. Holy Anchorites sheltering in the clefts of rocks, scattered at various heights along the cliffs."Mahler rises to this challenge by composing an adagio intro, which lasted 10 minutes here, with especially evocative passages for his 5 bassoons (including contra- ), as well as cellos and basses, and it's a landscape as enchantingly bare as that he conjures in the last song of Das Lied von der Erde (1907-09). The visual effects in the music here and elsewhere could have been strengthened by a carefully modulated lighting scheme and/or having some or all of the vocal soloists stationed in or above different parts of the orchestra pit, in clear view of the conductor. Mahler, after all, enlisted his designer at the Vienna Opera, Alfred Roller, for advice on choral placement for the work's 1910 Munich premiere.If you have to sit through an obviously theatrical work like this for an hour and a half you might as well see something. Why should all the fun be across the street at the opera? As it was the visual "drama" here consisted in watching 5 women soloists in frocks both pretty and not, and 3 tall male ones, and the redoubtable Tilson Thomas chorus and orchestra exerting themselves.

But the writing had its fascinations --- the timbral changes between different choirs, Doctor Marianus' ecstatic one breath solo in "Jungfrau, rein im schonsten Sinne", and the succeeding interlude dominated at its beginning by harmonium, harp and strings.The following full chorus was impressively built and sung, and there were stretches of almost Italianate vocal writing which combined beautifully with the precise yet sensuous orchestral parts.And the symphony's chorus, under Vance George's masterful direction, produced a suitably miraculous muted passage in perfect unison -- like the impossibly low drone of Tibetan monks -- at the start of the concluding "Chorus Mysticus." The final slightly held back orchestral peroration left no doubt that heaven had at last been won. But Davies' sonic hardness asserted itself now and then, which proves that hiring an acoustician, and not just taking out seats, is the best way to make a hall sound good. With so much fff you don't want to have to consult your ear doctor.But all bodies, in this less than perfect set-up, responded willingly to Tilson Thomas' fevered ministrations. And the full house gave it a long, vociferous standing ovation.

               -Michael McDonagh
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