Let's Hear It For Paradise!
Issac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Gustav Mahler: Symphony Number 8 in E flat Major (Symphony of a Thousand)
Christine Brewer, Marrisol Montalvo and Michaela Kaune (Sopranos), Stephanie Blythe and Charlotte Hellekant (Mezzo-sopranos), Vinson Cole (Tenor), Franco Pomponi (Baritone), James Morris (Bass)
The Philadelphia Singers Chorale, David Hayes (Music Director), The Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller (Music Director, Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, Alan Harler (Music Director), The American Boychoir, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz (Music Director), The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach (Music Director and Conductor)
Like the Chinese hundred-year egg, and the Torture of Ten-Thousand Cuts, Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” rarely lives up to its quantitative nickname. Gustav, though ailing, did manage to get 29 more than a thousand at its 1910 premiere, and Leopold Stokowski outdid that with 1,069 performers at its American performance.
But Christoph Eschenbach evidently took quality over quantity, even with four different choirs, and an orchestra of four harps, massive timpani, seven trombones, and a soprano in the balcony who sung a few notes in the finale, the population was probably less than five hundred. What they did have for this 80-minute paean to pantheism, God, nature, the Virgin Mary, and angelic children, as well asthe finale to Goethe’s Faust was a) the resonance of Carnegie Hall; and b)Christoph Eschenbach.
The Maestro will soon leave the Philadelphia Orchestra, but his sounds will continue for generations, for above all, this man has paramount command of both instrumental and choir resources. At first, in fact, his military attacks seemed virtually warlike. He started with the same kind of fervor that Mahler must have written the work. A great measure for organ and the full choir burst like a series of machine-guns into the prayer. It was great stunning music-making, but this was not your ordinary prayer, nor did Eschenbach conduct it as such. Mahler, a non-believer, said of the movement, “The Christians call it ‘eternal blessedness’….so I must employ this beautiful and sufficient mythology”. Eschenbach conducted , not with eternal blessings but like a crack marksman commanding 400-plus snipers to shoot inexactly the right direction. This they did, with forces blazing. He let down his guard a bit to let the seven soloists introduce themselves, but with choir and orchestra, he urged them onward, ever onward to the last massive chord.
The second movement took that finale of Faust which neither Berlioz nor Gounod dared essay. (Schumann did set it to music which has a droopy respect for the original.) Nothing droops with Mahler. He composed it “so the whole universe would sing”—almost the same words and goal of Skriabin in the same year. Eschenbach was not averse to giving the orchestral introduction the most mysterious sounds. Yes, every bar bass reflected the opening, but the nocturnal sounds had the feeling that something portentous was to erupt.
The choirs, including the splendid American Boychoir, did their part with aplomb. But this second half is more opera than cantata, and Eschenbach employed a group of soloists which outdid themselves. First, the always reliable Vinson Cole sung the tenor with dramatic import, less interested in being right on orchestral target than in accentuating the import of the words. His companions, Franco Pomponi and bass James Morris, were equally excellent. The female side had twp extraordinary sopranos in Michaela Kaune and Christine Brewer. Both had the purity (and seamless high C’s) which Mahler always demanded and rarely got. The dark mezzo of Stephanie Blythe and Charlotte Hellekant were just as impressive..
But then, cutting through the verbiage, this finale was a pretty impressive thing to set to music. All those angels and seraphim with Latin names and epistemological dialogue served as Faust’s Welcome Wagon into Paradise. Hopefully, he wouldn’t have to listen to the endless sermons for eternity. But if so, by employing conjurers like Eschenbach and Mahler, Faust would have turned casuistry into magic.