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S & H Concert Review

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No.8, Soloists & Choruses, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 8th June 2004 (PB)


Sir Simon Rattle began his recorded Mahler cycle in Birmingham with a choral work, Mahler’s Second; last Tuesday he completed it with the vast choral Eighth Symphony and, as so often with this symphony, it should prove to be the crowning achievement of his own cycle. This was a performance which, purely as spectacle, had almost everything: cataclysm, terror, and fire. If it lacked something, too, it was in the performance’s rather human view of the cosmic. Rarely did one feel that Rattle brought sufficient sense of the symphony’s themes of love, redemption and forgiveness to a performance that scaled monumental musical peaks on the surface but seemed understated beneath it.

The power with which Rattle started the work gave the first movement the momentum it needed for the pace he set. That Rattle held the tension with an iron baton and displayed almost tyrannical power (almost a contradiction for this musician) in doing so was welcome (how I wish he would do this more in Berlin); but that the fluidity of the second theme seemed to struggle because of it highlighted the problems of taking the music so breathtakingly fast. This conductor takes a particularly visceral view of the ‘Veni, creator spiritus’ hymn and in part it is the weakest of the two movement’s in his hands. ‘Accende lumen sensibus’ did not so much erupt as simply tear through the hall with the force of a Hurricane; when the double fugue appeared it did so with uncontrollable rage purging the music of its natural weight. It is undeniably exciting to hear, especially when the closing pages are taken with such ferocious angst, but it is the kind of catharsis that would not pay repeated listening (this may well be the case for some since the performance was recorded – along with the first last weekend – for release on both DVD and CD.)

On an entirely different scale is Rattle’s handling of the vast second movement (or, perhaps, one should say movements since its form is more complicated than its single structure suggests). Moving between extinguishable darkness to eternal light as Faust is wrenched between the flawed Earth to the transfigured Heavens, Rattle brings much to the movement that this reviewer has not heard before. Has the prelude, which opens the movement, ever sounded more sombre and bleak than it did here? Has a chorus ever sounded so rugged, yet so subliminally aware of a spiritual journey as it did here? At ‘Gerettet ist das edle Glied’ Rattle brought out the astringency of the women’s chorus without quite recalling its violent ancestry in the first movement’s ‘Accende lumen sensibus’. More extraordinarily, Gretchen’s intercession (here sung most beautifully by Soile Isokoski) was here accompanied by orchestral playing that through its transparency and fantasy recalled Messiaen – only Rattle could make the parallel. The very ending itself – so life affirming and ecstatic – had that final sense of balance that was so conspicuously absent in Part I.

The soloists (excepting the disappointment of not hearing Matthias Goerne as Pater ecstaticus) were well matched. Especially impressive were Christine Brewer, who brought both weight and opulence to her parts, and the bass Daniel Sumegi (himself a replacement), who conveyed real dramatic power in his singing of Pater profundis. Jon Villars – by no means the most sonorous of tenors – achieved minor miracles in the clarity and heft of his voice. The combined forces of the CBSO Chorus and Youth Chorus, the London Symphony Chorus and Toronto Children’s Chorus raised the spectre of heaven as well as the roof. And, for a German brought up on Goethe’s Faust, the clarity of the diction and phrasing was unusually precise. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, if not always note perfect, followed their old music director with unstinting conviction.


Pieter Bonhoeffer


Editor’s note: this review, replacing the scheduled review by Seen & Heard’s editor, has been translated (by the editor) from German into English. Every effort has been made to keep the original meaning as close as possible in translation. The editor is grateful to Pieter Bonhoeffer for providing this review at such short notice, and under such unexpected circumstances.



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