City of London Festival – Mahler 8/Gergiev

Mahler
Symphony No.8

Viktoria Yastrebova, Ailish Tynan & Liudmila Dudinova (sopranos)
Lilli Paasikivi & Zlata Bulycheva (mezzo-sopranos)
Sergey Semishkur (tenor)
Alexey Markov (baritone)
Evgeny Nikitin (bass)

London Symphony Chorus
Choral Arts Society of Washington
The Choir of Eltham College

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 10 July, 2008
Venue: St Paul's Cathedral, London

Rehearsal for the 1910 premiere performance of Mahler's 8th symphony in MunichThere could have been a danger of Mahler’s great choral symphony (sometimes referred to as ‘Symphony of a Thousand’) being swamped in – or by – the great spaces of St Paul’s Cathedral.

At any rate, from under the Dome, this was a marvellously convincing and hugely powerful performance, which was both stirring and moving. Quite what the impression was from further back in the cathedral, or via Radio 3’s live broadcast, I cannot, of course, tell.

Poster for teh World Premiere of Mahler's 8th symphonyOne thing particularly noticeable was that Valery Gergiev did not seem to have used the performing space to compromise with regard to tempo. The very opening – with a strong organ sound (making its distinctive contribution ‘tell’ throughout) – caught Mahler’s Allegro impetuoso marking unerringly. Indeed, one noticed Gergiev’s consistent fidelity to Mahler’s directions, though some may have been disappointed that he chose not to make the traditional ritenuto (unmarked in the score) leading to the recapitulation in ‘Part One’, and didn’t broaden out still more at the work’s conclusion.

Nevertheless, the dramatic contrasts between massive choral-and-orchestra textures and almost chamber-like delicacy was impressively realised. And some of Mahler’s more singular sonorities made a distinctive impression – the combination of harps, celesta and piano towards the close being a case in point. The harmonium was heard clearly, though the mandolin was not.The combination of the London Symphony Chorus and the Choral Arts Society of Washington proved to be a strong one; the voices were evenly balanced and produced a full, firm sound – ‘hostem repellas’ was visceral in impact. Conversely, there was some delicate, hushed singing (such as at the start of ‘Part Two’), though one did notice some stray word-endings from time to time.

Mahler conducting a rehearsal for the 1910 premiere performance in Munich. ©Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft, ViennaThe choristers of the Choir of Eltham College – mostly boys (as requested by the composer) though with a few young ladies in attendance – projected lines clearly and more than held their own in contrapuntal passages.

A strong team of soloists was in attendance, though their placing behind the orchestra occasionally suggested a degree of struggle to project over the players, though none was overwhelmed.Viktoria Yastrebova was especially notable for high notes soaring ecstatically and effortlessly and she was expressive in her Magna Peccatrix music in ‘Part Two’, as was Ailish Tynan as Una Poenitentium who tenderly recalls music from ‘Part One’ in her solo.

The blend of the women in ensemble was very fine indeed. The whole team of soloists, in fact, worked particularly well together as a group.

Sergey Semishkur was valiant in the taxing demands of the tenor’s music; if one perhaps wanted a stronger, fuller heldentenor sound, he was more than adequate and relished the top notes, of which there are not a few in his part.Alexey Markov and Evgeny Nikitin both made a good impression, but were a little undifferentiated. A darker bass sound than Nikitin has to deploy would have been ideal.

But odd moments of deficiency (such as a couple of places of insecure ensemble in the middle and towards the end of the second part) did not detract from the effect of the whole.Unlikely as St Paul’s may be as a venue for a work of this kind, the overall impact of the performance (the second one) was completely compelling, thoroughly absorbing, and made a fitting climax to Gergiev’s LSO cycle of Mahler’s numbered symphonies, which has divided opinion (see links below), and the City of London Festival.

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