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Mariinsky's Downsized Mahler 8

available at Amazon
Mahler, Symphony No. 8, LSO, Choral Arts Society of Washington, V. Gergiev (live)

available at Amazon
Mahler, Symphony No. 8, BSO, S. Ozawa
(available as an MP3 download for $7)

Online score:
Mahler, Symphony No. 8
The last time we heard a performance of Mahler's grandiose eighth symphony in Washington, in 2006, Leonard Slatkin arrayed some 600 performers around the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Singers overflowed into the house balconies near the stage, and the supplemental brass corp and the Mater Gloriosa of Christine Brandes were heard from the upper tier near the back of the hall. Even that National Symphony Orchestra performance was still nowhere near the thousand-odd performers amassed by Mahler at the work's premiere on September 12, 1910 -- one hundred years ago -- for which a savvy promoter dubbed this overblown symphonic oratorio "The Symphony of a Thousand," a name never sanctioned by the composer. (An attempted reconstruction of the premiere took place in Duisburg, Germany, on the anniversary.) Valery Gergiev, in a performance presented by WPAS on Tuesday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, mustered barely three hundred performers between his Mariinsky Orchestra and about one hundred sixty singers from Choral Arts Society of Washington and a Spanish choir called the Orféon Pamplonés.

Though this somewhat downsized force still produced a wall of sound when they needed it, it was hard not to miss the panoply and spectacle of a larger ensemble -- unwieldy, to be sure, but visually and sonically overwhelming. Worse, Gergiev drove and lashed the performers through an amped-up rendition of the work, by my count lasting only about 71 minutes (shorter than Gergiev's London performance with the Choral Arts Society). The pacing of Part I was relentless, viscerally exciting at times but not always holding together, and even Part II was often breathless and rushed, allowing no sense of timeless expanse to unfold, even in the sublime Chorus Mysticus from Faust. This fell far short of my favorite recording of the work, recommended some years ago by Jens Laurson, with Seija Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (now available very cheaply as a download). Part of this is because of the impetuous, often mercurial approach of Gergiev, but it is hard not to think that a performance that bordered on perfunctory could be related to the fact that Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra have been performing Mahler symphonies everywhere this fall. Gergiev's hurricane Mahler tour was in Michigan and Chicago earlier this month, and more recently in New York, New Jersey on Saturday, and back at Carnegie Hall this weekend, all scheduled around Gergiev conducting performances of Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan Opera.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, October 21)

Tim Smith, A brisk, bracing Mahler 8 from Gergiev, Mariinsky Orchestra in Washington (Baltimore Sun, October 20)

---, Orchestras, concert presenters need to learn from opera and add supertitles (Baltimore Sun, October 21)

Alex Baker, Two Mahlers (Wellsung, October 20)
The Mariinsky Orchestra played with its customary edge, calibrated well to the reduced scope of the choral forces and especially the occasionally vulnerable cadre of soloists, placed near the back of the orchestra in an acoustically unfavorable spot. The lead trumpet seemed overly fatigued, cracking in the opening few measures and several more times in exposed places, and the piccolo often squealed disturbingly off pitch. One also missed the booming organ of the Ozawa recording, a sound present in the Concert Hall but not all that noticeable. Most impressive among the soloists were baritone Alexei Markov as Pater Ecstaticus, although his top notes were slightly strained, and bass Yevgeny Nikitin as Pater Profundus. Of the two sopranos, the shimmering voice of Anastasia Kalagina as Una Poenitentium surpassed the occasionally shrill and off-pitch Magna Peccatrix of Viktoria Yastrebova, while the Mater Gloriosa of Lyudmila Dudinova, heard from somewhere in the chorus above, was discolored and flat, perhaps because of the distance. Tenor August Amonov struggled with the heroic and high parts of Doctor Marianus, but mezzo-soprano Zlata Bulycheva made a thick and full-throated Maria Aegyptiaca. The most charming choral performance came from the Children's Chorus of Washington, who cupped their hands to their mouths with bright-eyed eagerness and sounded pure and unified.


Thomas Hogglestock said...

Well you certainly got this one right. It wasn't terrible but it certainly didn't pack the punch that it should have. They needed about a hundred more chorus members. I was also disappointed that the typically antiphonal brass weren't antiphonal, not to mention the disappointing placement of Mater Gloriosa. (By the way, she was just behind the last row of singers in the third bay of stage boxes on the audience's left side.) As underwhelming as it was I still hate to miss a Mahler 8, and I wouldn't have been aware of this one if not for your blog. When I mentioned this to the nice woman sitting next to me she said she knew you. Small world.

Thomas Hogglestock said...

One more thing. This performance has me wondering about this Mahler mishmash that is happening at the Kennedy Center in the spring. The Washington Chorus is doing Part I of Number 8, part of Number 3, and the finale of Number 2 amongst other Mahler. It seems like it might have train wreck written all over it.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for your comments. My friend who sat next to you told me about meeting you, and I made the connection. As for the Mahler mishmash you mention, I know no more about it than you do: your suspicions, however, seem well grounded to me.

Anonymous said...

The antiphonal brass was always supposed to be in the house and an hour before the concert Gergiev decided against it. We weren't told why!