Monday, September 21, 2015

Gustav Mahler: Symphony #8

Titled by the impresario who organized its 1910 premiere, the "Symphony of a Thousand," the eighth and final symphony of Gustav Mahler is a staggering achievement in that, even though there were 1,028 persons involved in its performance, the piece isn't overbearing or chaotic.

Mahler wrote the works in just a couple of months in Summer 1906 with the orchestration finished the next year.  The first movement came by accident, as Mahler wrote to a friend that "an old book fell into my hand and I chanced upon the hymn 'Veni, Creator Spiritus."  With this allure to a composer already imbued with deep spiritual feeling, the composer noted that "at a single stroke I saw the only thing—not only the opening theme, but the whole first movement, and as an answer to it I could imagine nothing more beautiful than Goëthe's text in the scene with the anchorites."

This latter reference was the 53-minute "Final Scene from Faust," including a 19-minute orchestral introduction, a short (especially for the expansive Mahler) eight-and-a-half minute middle section, and the imposing final section, spanning 29-minutes.  Notably, while many composers based pieces on Goëthe's masterwork by focusing on the title character's damnation through the manipulations of Mephistopheles, a.k.a., the Devil, Mahler was drawn instead by the second part's apotheosis of Faust.

Mahler was so enraptured by his conception, feeling that it was the culmination of his life's work and his masterpiece, that he wrote, "just imaging that the universe is beginning to sound and to ring.  It is no longer human voices, but circling planets and suns."  It would be decades before music invoking the cosmos became the order of the day, but here was Mahler ascending into the heavens to make his final musical statement.

This 1991 recording from the Telarc label features the orchestra and chorus of the Atlanta Symphony, conducted by Robert Shaw, with solos by eight principal vocalists, including the well-known soprano Deborah Voigt.  There is also the Atlanta Boy Choir, the Ohio State University Chorale and Symphonic Choir, the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and members of the University of South Florida chorus to round out the huge roster of performers.

To this untrained ear, the performances are excellent, the sound is full and rich, and the conducting brings out the core of the spiritual explorations and ecstacies developed by Mahler in the course of the massive 80-minute work.

Frankly, taking on the task of listening to this opus at one sitting has not been quite the challenge envisioned when the disc was first bought and there have been two full listenings in the last few days.  Mahler's ability to provide a wide range of symphonic sound and the partnering of choral singing with orchestral performance allows the music to move along in such a way that it doesn't really seem like nearly an hour and a half has elapsed before this magesterial work sounds its last lingering note.

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