Life is hard as a slave to Music. Just after Julian Steckel’s Saint-Saëns, and still before the Vienna Chamber Orchestra under Heinrich Schiff played their Voříšek Symphony after intermission, I was on my way to the train station to catch the potential highpoint of the Munich Mahler Year—the performance of the garishly divine Eighth Symphony by the orchestra that had premiered it 100 years and one month earlier—then under the composer himself, now under the orchestra's soon-to-be-parting music director, Christian Thielemann.
Too bad the performance didn’t take place in the original location, the International Exhibition Center (the management had looked into that, but moving the trains and trams out of what is not the traffic museum proved too cumbersome and costly). But the second best thing after a hall for outdated trains is the oversized Munich Philharmonic Hall at the Gasteig, which sounded perfectly fine for the work. In fact, it sounded so good that a pundit afterwards opined that maybe Munich didn’t need a new concert hall, after all. He is correct, of course, assuming that the Munich Philharmonic will only play Mahler’s Eighth from now on, with the occasional Harvegal Brian “Gothic” Symphony and Shostakovich’s Fifth thrown in.
There have been historic battles where the numerical odds for the victors had been worse than what the performers faced if they had been made to fight the present audience. Just over 400 against 2400 with the average age devastatingly favoring the former over the latter… Among those 400+ performers (trying to count I ended up with 403) were sopranos Ricarda Merberth (Magna peccatrix), Manuela Uhl (Una poenitentium), and Sibylla Rubens (Mater gloriosa), mezzos Lioba Braun (Mulier Samaritana) and Birgit Remmert (Maria Aegyptiaca), tenor Burkhard Fritz (Doctor Marianus), baritone Roman Trekel (Pater ecstaticus), and bass Albert Dohmen (Pater profundus). The choruses were the Munich Philharmonic Chorus (under Andreas Herrmann), the Tölz Boys’ Choir, and—this another nod to the Munich world premiere—the Wiener Singverein.
With unusually economic movements, Thielemann conducted the masses through the massive “Veni, creator spiritus” without misplaced élan or sportive shenanigans, with the necessary breadth and still a clear hand. For the end of first chorus of Part II he took the tempo out, perhaps the only moment where any tempo or tempo change was obvious in an otherwise extraordinarily fluid performance. The whole work sounded far slower than it was, and felt shorter than it sounded——clocking in at ‘only’ 85 minutes, which is on the long-side of the spectrum, but perfectly within that spectrum’s normal bandwidth, and apparently considerably swifter than Thielemann had conducted the Eighth a couple nights before. The second part, though inevitably offering a lull here or there (say: the middle hour or so), attained almost delicate features under Thielemann’s caring hands, and the finale, with these smoothly navigated tempi, was as hoveringly-mysterious as it needs to be; the Chorus Mysticus being the slowly tensing highlight of the evening—just as it should be.
The voices—placed up front—were good enough, by and large, without ever being mistaken for the main ingredient in this performance: Of Trekl one could have had more of, had he not sang into floorboards in front of him half the time. Fritz, overtaxed and undergroomed, was an embarrassment in every imaginable way, and Dohmen’s skilled veteran performance was good enough to save his face, but not also that of the whole men’s side. Not when the female part of the equation was so considerably better. Mmes. Merbeth, Rubens and Braun particularly, but neither stoic Mme. Remmert nor Pieczonka-replacement Uhl far behind, even if the latter didn’t dare to sing truly hushed notes. The dictates of economics mean that the work is not that often performed live, but of the limited exposure I’ve had (incl. NSO and Tyrolean Festival), this was the best yet—thanks to getting all the essential parts—Part I and the Chorus mysticus—right.