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A problematic work

Kultur Kongresszentrum Luzern
02/25/2009 -  & February 26*, 2009
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 8

Melanie Diener (Magna Peccatrix), Juliane Banse (Una Poenitentium), Lisa Larsson (Mater Gloriosa), Yvonne Naef (Mulier Samaritana), Birgit Remmert (Maria Aegyptica), Anthony Dean Giffey (Doctor Marianus), Stephen Powell (Pater Ecstaticus), Askar Abdrazakov (Pater Profundus)
Schweizer Kammerchor, Fritz Näf (Chorus Master), WDR Rundfunkchor, Robert Blank (Chorus Master), Zürcher Sängerknaben, Konrad von Aarburg (Chorus Master), Kinderchor Kaltbrunn, Daniel Winiger (Chorus Master), Tonhalle Orchestra, David Zinman (Conductor)

Many people have problems with Mahler’s gigantic Eighth Symphony. For those who enjoy almost everything else Mahler wrote, this symphony is sometimes “a symphony too far”. He diverges in this work from basic symphonic scheme and combines elements of dramatic cantata, orchestral song and sacred oratorio, a difficult mix. It is scored for a huge orchestra and chorus, so that the Tonhalle Orchestra had to decamp from its usual base in Zurich to travel to Lucerne where the newer KKL Hall can accommodate the work – just.

Although Mahler was ambivalent in religious matters, this work shows his spirituality even if the deity was his wife, Alma Maria. The work is dedicated to her, the only one he inscribed.

Part I of the work, the symphonic setting of the Latin hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus”, opened too tentatively, the organ’s first note strangely not making the desired impact, then the choir not quite at one. The effect of this crucial opening had been lost. Zinman and his orchestra settled down thereafter and began to sound more relaxed by the “Infirma nostri corporis” where Anthony Dean Giffey sang with firm tone, rising splendidly to the high and quiet notes of “Lumen accende sensibus”. The chorus improved as the movement progressed; the Zürcher Sängerknaben (strangely attired in sailor suits, from a city without an ocean) were simply not loud enough. The final “Gloria Patri” was sung splendidly, at last a fortissimo to take the audience’s breath away, the additional brass being placed in the heavens of the 4th balcony.

Part II, the rhapsodic setting of the final part of Goethe’s Faust symbolises mankind redeemed from wrongdoing through Love. Although continuous, it has three distinct sections, a slow adagio section, a scherzo-like section and the tremendous finale. Zinman failed to make the work appear as a whole. In the Adagio, the men’s hushed chorus impressed with “Waldung, sie schwenkt heran”, and were followed by Stephen Powell’s sturdy baritone solo “Ewiger Wonnebrand”, though he was stretched by his penultimate top note. Askar Abdrazakov was a fine Russian bass, but the work does not suit a Russian bass. His voice was too satanic, the diction a mite unclear. Anthony Dean Gaffey sang fluidly throughout, tested only at the very top of his register. The lady soloists were not uniformly uplifting although Yvonne Naef stood out with her strong and secure mezzo, shaping her solos with great expression. Juliane Banse improved markedly as the evening progressed.

The final “Das Ewig-Weibliche” should not fail to impress sonically, but one should be left with a feeling of ascension. Zinman and his forces missed some of the passion, the yearning, the visceral power, and were generally more successful in the quieter sections (such as those with harps, mandolin, celesta and harmonium) than in the grand tutti. It was certainly a worthy performance, but sadly not a profound experience.

John Rhodes



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