Lorin Maazel and the Philharmonia Orchestra had already given us Mahler’s extended valedictions to life and music in Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth and – Adagio only – Tenth symphonies, but they completed their Mahler cycle with a performance of Symphony No.8 (the so-called 'Symphony of a Thousand') that could hardly have been more life-affirming, in which the fire of the creative spirit was all-consuming. It has been some time since I have heard the Eighth in the Royal Festival Hall, and the sound from the 400-odd singers and instrumentalists had a stunning clarity and sheen.
Over his long career, the 81-year-old Maazel has come in for quite a critical mauling – anything from his imperious, detached style to the way he walks to the podium. As far as this No.8 was concerned, his phenomenal conducting technique enabled the detail of Mahler’s huge score to speak in a way that served the soul of the music. Sure, his approach was analytical, but only in the way that he secured the extraordinary range of connections that music makes – and that needs a clear head so that the symphony’s teeming emotional world can sing for itself. To see Maazel’s extreme economy of gesture and to hear the quality of response from the players was totally compelling and involved us in the strange, symbiotic process of re-creation.
Just as revealing were Maazel’s very occasional expansively lyrical gestures with his left-hand at moments of high expression while his pulse-like beat kept the music on a natural flow. The supernatural accuracy of Maazel’s ear and infallible sense of phrase and structure combined with the Philharmonia Orchestra’s hyper-reactive playing were a revelation, one of those performances that ushers you into the music in a way that fixes and deepens your understanding of it.
The first part, the Pentecostal invocation to the creative process, forged ahead with terrific momentum, Maazel decisively in charge of the changes of direction and mood. The brass was bright and febrile, and the choral polyphony effortlessly clear and secure.
Where he celebrated the first part’s self-contained certainties, especially in the irrepressible affirmation of the concluding ‘Gloria’, the opening of Part 2 (setting the closing scene of Goethe‘s Faust) was an almost palpable wasteland. This is Mahler’s most powerful nature music. Maazel shrouded it in bleak shades of grey, the depiction of romantic desolation becoming desolation itself.
The Philharmonia’s playing in the anguished Prelude had a Parsifal-like intensity, and the first suggestion of the chorale theme came as a minimally less grey relief, one of innumerable masterstrokes of orchestral colour and texture. Maazel shaped the whole with a sure eye on the music’s goal, letting the various groups of blessed, younger and more-perfect angels flow their music into the section for the three women soloists, which sets the course for the finale. Maazel made us powerfully aware of how this vast movement seems to carry on from where the finale of the Third Symphony left off, and he achieved, triumphantly, the paradox of the closing pages, fully realising Mahler’s vision of spiritual transformation while already retreating from it.
Apart from some incandescently fine orchestral playing and energised, impeccable choral singing – the sound that the boys produced in praise of the transformed Faust was hair-raising – it was the eight soloists who clinched the stature of this performance. All brought unforgettable, unfailing, visionary concentration. Sally Matthews and Ailish Tynan sang with soaring passion (and considerable volume) and, with Anne-Marie Owens, were astounding in the passage for the three penitents; Sarah Connolly performed with that connective directness that puts everything she does onto another, ecstatic plane; and the three men were
exceptional. But pity the tenor Stefan Vinke, who had been negotiating the punishingly high range of Dr Marianus in great heroic style (which bodes well for his Siegfried at Covent Garden next year). He had just launched into his final ascent in ‘Blicket auf’ when one of the double bass players collapsed, causing a considerable disturbance. Vinke’s fearless projection kept the music on course, but it was a nail-biting moment. Perfection is never without risk.