JOYOUS MAHLER FROM THE VANCOUVER BACH CHOIR AND WEST COAST SYMPHONY
Robyn Driedger-Klassen, Melanie Krueger, Sarah Templeton (sopranos), Emma Parkinson, Leah Giselle Field (mezzo-sopranos), Martin Sadd (tenor), Kevin Armstrong (baritone), Peter Monaghan (bass-baritone): Vancouver Bach Choir and Children’s Chorus, West Coast Symphony Orchestra, Leslie Dala (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, February 17, 2018.
Performing Mahler’s Eighth Symphony represents a profound challenge to any ensemble, and it a very special event when it is undertaken. The VSO under Bramwell Tovey proved relatively successful in their attempt a few years ago, and now it is the Vancouver Bach Choir and the West Coast Symphony under Leslie Dala that take a turn. If Mahler thought this symphony should be ‘everything’, then it is fascinating to consider how this might be achieved. The key problem is how to physically convey the vast scope and size of the work while also successfully balancing the mass of the choral forces with the orchestra and vocal soloists. While these difficulties were not fully overcome in this performance – and in fact seldom are – everyone surely came together to participate in the joyous spirit and power of the work. The Bach Choir turned in a worthy contribution and the soloists were distinguished.
Mahler’s Eighth Symphony contrasts strongly with his purely instrumental 7th and 9th symphonies. Though aiming at unprecedented vocal scale, it ultimately carries forth the tradition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Liszt’s Faust and Dante Symphonies, and the composer’s own earlier efforts to incorporate vocal parts in Symphonies 2 – 4. While all these works feature singing in their concluding movements, the difference with the Eighth Symphony is that it is sung from beginning to end, a concept that also comes to fruition in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The first of its two parts employs the text of the 9th century Pentecostal hymn ‘Veni creator spiritus’, while the second part is a setting of the final scene (Mountain-gorges, Forest, Rock, Desert) from Goethe’s Faust, Part Two. What unifies these texts in two different languages, from two different epochs and cultures, is the common idea of Eros (Love), embodied in the Holy Spirit or the Eternal Feminine, as a creative and redemptive force. In the first part of the symphony, Mahler sets the text of the Latin hymn as a sacred motet, with elaborate polyphony culminating in a double fugue on the words ‘Praevio te Ductore’. The second part, less rigorously polyphonic, is constructed along the lines of an operatic scena, and includes an orchestral prelude, choral numbers, and arias for the allegorical characters from Goethe’s private cosmogony (Doctor Marianus, Una poenitentium, etc.).
Any chorus and orchestra attempting a performance of this work must not only cope with the technical demands of Mahler’s style – his use of extreme registers, a wide dynamic range, and subtle nuances in every bar – but they must also communicate the intellectual and emotional essence of the music, which is firmly rooted in the texts. Above all, the words should be audible and intelligible at all times, and this requires precise enunciation as well as careful attention to balance.
This performance enlisted 250 singers and instrumentalists, and had the advantage of very fine contributions from the solo singers. The women’s voices projected clearly above the ensemble and were consistently well balanced; the blending of voices during the trio of penitent women in the second part was particularly beautiful. Sopranos Robyn Driedger-Klassen and Sarah Templeton merit special praise for making Mahler’s demanding vocal writing – with its many sustained high B-flats and Cs – sound effortless. The men’s voices were less evenly matched in strength, but they each brought a compelling sense of character to their roles in Goethe’s drama. The role of Doctor Marianus was well served by tenor Martin Sadd, whose huge voice soared without strain above the children’s chorus and large orchestra. Baritone Kevin Armstrong gave an ardent performance of Pater Ecstaticus’s aria ‘Ewige Wonnebrand’, a rendering well aided by the singer’s smooth legato and clear enunciation. Bass-baritone Peter Monaghan heroically navigated his way through the wide leaps and jagged contours of Pater Profundus’s aria, though at times he struggled to be heard above the tempestuous orchestral accompaniment.
The chorus and orchestra were generally most effective in the large, homophonic climaxes of the score, such as the beginning and ending of Part One, and the end of Part Two. The sound of the combined forces was particularly impressive in the invocation to the Holy Spirit at the very beginning. The balance between voices and instruments was mostly successful but, in exposed passages, the orchestral accompaniment was sometimes too strong to allow individual sections of the chorus to come through. There were indeed some nice touches in the quieter moments, such as the clear and well-balanced violin and viola solos of ‘Infirma nostri corporis’ and ‘Uns bleibt ein Erdenrest’. The wind and horn solos scattered throughout the symphony were beautifully played, and the organ provided solid support for the choral forces.
The most formidable difficulties of the work lie in the polyphonic writing for eight-part double chorus, such as the double fugue in the first part. Here the polyphony at times lacked clarity and definition, making the words of the text difficult to comprehend. Scaling down the orchestra with a greater emphasis on the choir’s enunciation rather than its volume might have helped. The unwieldy high tessitura in some of the parts for the choral sopranos and the principal brass players provided their own challenges, but thankfully the moments of strain and insecure intonation were limited.
Overall, the performance succeeded in conveying a sense of a grand occasion. Perhaps a closer engagement with the text and finer attention to details of dynamics and orchestral balance would have yielded even more substantial and moving results, but the performers clearly enjoyed the epic qualities of the music, and projected a true feeling of joy in this ambitious undertaking.
© Nicolas Krusek 2018
Photo Credit: Sophie Song (Lahoo.ca)