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Bertrand de Billy & ORF Radio Symphonie Orchester Wien Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 8 "Symphony of a Thousand" OC 768 CD
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FormatAudio CD
Ordering NumberOC 768
Barcode4260034867680
labelOehmsClassics
Release date07/02/2011
Players/ContributorsMusicians Composer
  • Mahler, Gustav

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      Gustav Mahler

      Symphony No. 8 “Symphony of a Thousand”
      Ricarda Merbeth, soprano · Elza van den Heever, soprano
      Elisabeta Marin, soprano · Stella Grigorian, alto
      Jane Henschel, alto · Johan Botha, tenor
      Boaz Daniel, baritone · Kwangchoul Youn, bass
      Wiener Singakademie · Slovakian Philharmonic Chorus
      Vienna Choir Boys · ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester
      Bertrand de Billy, conductor


      It is the greatest I have ever composed, wrote Gustav Mahler after completing his Eighth Symphony. This remark did not only refer to the gigantic forces of singers and instrumentalists required by the score, but also to the idea that is conveyed in sound. By contrasting the Whitsuntide hymn “Veni creator spiritus” with the closing scene from Goethe’s “Faust II”, Mahler expresses the close spiritual relationship between art and religion: the reconciliation with the idea of spiritual love.

      This CD is a live recording of a concert on March 27, 2010 that was performed in the Vienna Konzerthaus. It is particularly attractive due to the outstanding group of soloists, which includes Johan Botha, Jane Henschel and Kwangchoul Youn. Bertrand de Billy also proves his ability here to bring out the finest, subtlest music-making from even the largest orchestral and choral bodies.

      "...the crux of the entire work"
      Observations on reactions to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8


      It is now just over a hundred years since the world premiere, on September 12, 1910, of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in what was then the Neue Musikfesthalle in Munich, conducted by the composer. This anniversary, coupled with the two Mahler anniversaries: 150 years since his birth (July 7, 1860), followed by the 100th anniversary of his death (May 18, 1911), have created an unprecedented proliferation of performances of a work which not only causes considerable problems for every large concert promoter in a logistic sense, but also places enormous demands on all the participants in a performance of this work.

      Perhaps it is a good thing that the 8th Symphony is only now gradually finding its way onto the international concert scene. Up to the end of his life, the composer regarding this work as his best and most important composition, even at a time when he was working on his 10th Symphony (uncompleted), which therefore means after completion of his Lied von der Erde and the 9th Symphony, which are generally regarded as representing the pinnacles of Mahler’s creative output.

      When conversation turns towards the 8 th Symphony, one will very soon and frequently encounter doubt, mistrust and blatant rejection – even from experienced and well-known musicians who otherwise treat Mahler’s compositions with respect. If one attempts, by means of detailed discussions, to discover the justification for this rejection, one often rapidly encounters two reasons: even the musicians themselves are often only familiar with the 8 th Symphony on a superficial level. Ok, maybe they have heard the piece in some performance or recording, but few of them have considered serious study of the score to be worthwhile. This reluctance to study the score of the 8 th Symphony to the same extent as this composer’s other works forms the second cause, namely that there is hardly a symphonic work weighed down by the circumstances of its world premiere and the reactions which followed it as this composition. The unfortunate subtitle of concert promoter Emil Guttmann, who organized the world premiere in September 1910 in Munich, still accompanies the work today: “Symphony of a Thousand”. Although, after the premiere, it was very rare for over a thousand participants to be involved in a single performance, the aura of the colossal and the excessive has hung round the work’s neck like a lead weight. On the other hand, almost every performance of the 8 th Symphony (even if it is rare to experience even one performance which adequately lives up to the work’s enormous demands) is always a triumphant success. One could almost believe that this symphony, its message and the overwhelming enthusiasm which Mahler composed into the work, reached the audience far earlier than it reached many interpreters.

      In the past, even educated music scholars such as Hans Mayer, whose pronouncements regarding Richard Wagner still remain some of the most clear-sighted remarks made among the vast literature which has been published on the master of Bayreuth, have hardly been less forthcoming with their doubts about the apparently very disparate literary sources of this symphony as Theodor W. Adorno in his groundbreaking book about Mahler from 1960. When even great masters such as these show not only doubt, but also downright self-evident rejection toward the composition of a composer whose works they otherwise highly value, it is no wonder that even serious musicians often do not even make a first stab at really getting to know the material in detail. In particular Adorno’s negative influence on the reception of the 8 th Symphony still has proven resonance today. In his book, T.W. Adorno not only accuses Mahler of having restorative and ornamental leanings, but heaps a lively flood of insults on precisely this composition: “symbiotic gigantic tome”, “a vulgarization of Hegel-like aesthetics in its contents … like that which flourishes in eastern kingdoms these days”, “permeated by the elevating exhilaration of a singing competition … as in the Mastersingers”, the “simplified form”, the second movement “is squeezed into the restrictive continuo pattern in a stylized manner”, the “unconvincing affirmation” of the first part of the second movement becomes suffused, according to Adorno, with the “phantasma of simplicity”. All of this is dashed off in an ill-substantiated and sparsely reflexive argument, untypical of Adorno, of less than two pages. This was atypical of a man who, with this book, had done more than anyone else before him (and only very few after him) to promote a positive, pioneering and openminded Mahler reception.

      The origins of the literary source material for the two parts of the symphony are separated by a period of almost a thousand years: the Latin Whitsuntide hymn “Veni, creator spiritus” – written between 800 and 850 and accredited to church father Hrabanus Maurus – and Goethe’s conclusion of his “principal work”, the closing scene from Faust – which is still regarded by many as the most complex and profound work of theatrical poetry in the German language. It is precisely the alleged qualitative divergence of both poems which led to Hans Mayer’s attack on the work, quoted above. Although he usually appeared to know everything, he did not know (as very likely Mahler himself did not know) that Goethe, the Weimar prince of poetry, at that moment was not only particularly fond of this Whitsuntide hymn, but had himself finished his own, never published translation and was trying to persuade his house composer Zelter to set it to music. It makes one curious to discover whether, if Mahler had been aware of this fact, he had perhaps considered setting the piece in a German translation – and then of course naturally the one by Goethe; and then it would also be interesting to know how Hans Mayer would then have evaluated the cohesion and quality of both movements in this context. The charge of a lack of cohesion between the two parts is one of the oldest and most tenacious prejudices against the 8th Symphony. Even here, one suspects that the critics had neither studied the way Mahler had used the Whitsuntide hymn, nor were acquainted with its exact translation or even, in many cases, with Goethe’s Faust! One often overlooks the fact that Mahler always took things which inspired him and appealed to him from his literary source material (whether it was “Wunderhorn” texts, the poetry of Klopstock or Nietzsche), reorganized the texts, shortened them or expanded them with his own words – i.e. re-interpreting them through his own understanding. In his use of the Whitsuntide hymn, Mahler proceeds in an equally radical manner as with his texts, but unites in complete fundamental understanding with Goethe’s approach to this emphatic appeal to creative genius – the alleged author Hrabanus Maurus would probably have been just as unimpressed with the manipulation and the cohesion of his text as Klopstock or Nietzsche would have been about the way their texts were used in the 2nd and 3rd Symphonies. Even if Mahler very probably wasn’t familiar with Goethe’s translation of the hymn, he was, however, a real Goethe connoisseur, and had probably read Goethe’s thesis from Maxims and Reflections: “light and spirit … are the highest conceivable indivisible energies”. And one should also be aware that Mahler was carrying the plan of setting the final scene of Faust to music around with him long before he actually started drafting out his 8 th Symphony.

      The reality of the work is almost diametrically opposite to all its slanderous criticisms. The relationship in terms of content between the “Veni, creator” and the emphasis in the final scene from Faust can be very easily demonstrated. This is also true of the numerous musical bridges which Mahler builds, like indicator arrows, between the meaning reference points of both settings. The 8th Symphony is no longer a pure polyphonic masterpiece, like one could study so excellently in the 5th and particularly the 7 th Symphony, because Mahler drew on the source materials according to a much more eclectic structure. In precisely this work, as in none other before, Mahler revealed himself to be capable of masterfully commanding all musical structures, whether it is sonata form (1st movement), variation, hymn or fugue, song or choral. By this point in his life, Mahler simply had the entire repertoire of compositional skills at his disposal and he used these technical masterstrokes superbly – and with passion! The eminent significance of the work’s key relationships is usually pushed far into the background. E-flat major, E major and E-flat minor characterize the meaning of this symphony to an extremely decisive degree and even here, in his use of keys, Mahler reveals himself to be at the pinnacle of his ability.

      Merely his adherence to the form of the symphony, but one which is “sung from beginning to end”, provoked Mahler’s contemporaries to criticize, but Mahler was unswerving in his intention to create with every symphony a part of the world and an individual philosophical cosmos, and only a master of all musical structures could have achieved this masterpiece in such an unbelievably short time. The draft score was created within an unbelievable three months! Mahler drew from an embarrassment of riches, both in terms of craftsmanship and musical inspiration. It is clear that, despite remaining true to the symphonic form, structures such as the cantata, oratorio and opera also stood at Mahler’s disposal as well as every possibility within the structure of a symphony. Since the 2nd Symphony, the use of human voices in Mahler’s symphonies comes as no surprise. The 8th Symphony differs, however, in that the human voice is deployed as an equal alongside the instrumental orchestral parts. This is what makes performance of the voice parts so unusually difficult and is clearly different to the other symphonies, in which individual singers sometimes step forward in a solo capacity.

      For obvious reasons, it is not possible to undertake an in-depth analysis of the 8th Symphony here, but the reader is directed towards the bibliography listed below, particularly the more recent analyses by Chr. Wildhagen and P. Revers.

      A few observations will serve to complete what was said at the beginning: even in its final form, the original concept still relates to a four movement symphony in terms of rudimentary analysis, in which the long, purely orchestral introduction to the second movement corresponds to a key point in the structural analysis. Originally, the hymn of the first movement was to have been followed by an adagio with the preliminary title “Caritas”, which forms the only pure orchestral part of the entire composition and is very much in the character of this introduction (and is reflected in the chorus which follows it). The remains of the original conception of a Scherzo with Wunderhorn songs, given the title “Weihnachtsspiele mit dem Kindlein” (“Christmas games with the little child”) and a closing hymn to the power of Eros are either more awkwardly (in the case of the Scherzo) or more easily (in the Finale) reflected within the content cohesion with Goethe’s poem and the work’s final compositional structure. One does not need to give exaggerated weight to this original idea in order to understand the result, but it is clear, and implied by the speed at which the piece was composed, that the transition from original conception to the final shape of the work was not such a great distance for the composer to travel as one might imagine. But it is also one of many indications that the 8th Symphony does not, as is often stated, fall outside the canon of the other Mahler symphonies, it rather fits in very well if one is prepared to put aside the external circumstances of the first performance and its consequences and concentrate on analyzing the material itself.

      In his interpretation, Christian Wildhagen has in particular impressively highlighted the narrow content cross references by precise textual analysis, on the one hand, and their parallel musical equivalents, on the other. It is actually surprising that wellfounded and logically grounded studies of this symphony have taken so long to appear. The study mentioned first took place 90(!) years after the world premiere. What is more, Mahler’s instructions in the score are clear, the musical cross references are not at all hidden or difficult to interpret. And Mahler’s words, spoken during rehearsals for the first performance, have always been adequately known: “the bridge goes over to the end of ‘Faust’. This point is the crux of the entire work”. Here Mahler was referring to his deployment of the “Accende lumen sensibus” in the first movement and its reappearance for the words in the second movement in the chorus of angels “… wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen” (“… whoever always continues to strive, we can redeem him”).

      A substantial key to understanding the work can already be seen merely in these words handed down to us. The real complex of meaning for both movements of Mahler’s 8th is essentially a theme already deployed in earlier symphonies. The final movement of the 3rd Symphony in particular can easily be seen as representing an orchestral sketch of ideas for the 8th: Mahler’s life theme of the vision of comprehensive, redeeming and creative love. Christian Wildhagen’s analysis correctly reveals that the “Accende” theme in the second movement develops “into the leading theme of redeeming love” and controls vast parts with an “almost mono-thematic tendency”. The original idea of the Caritas from the first drafts of this composition is, of course, also reflected, as are those of the Eros, in the Finale of the symphony – when understood naturally in a higher, all-embracing concept which exceeds the purely human.

      The accusation that the appearance of the anchorites (who therefore occupy the position of the Scherzo in the work’s original four movement conception) has the effect of a line up of arias, almost like a song club, fails to recognize that Goethe’s source material already implies this at a purely dramaturgical level: the anchorites are followed by the angels and then the women – the “eternal feminine”, the ascent toward the highest essence of love (comparison can be made with the 3rd Symphony here!), which is congenially represented in its musical structure. Furthermore, the characters of the figures which appear are highly differentiated and impressively sketched and enhanced.

      Towards the end of the work, the texture of musical cross connections becomes ever denser; focusing with fascinating logic towards the Finale, the “Chorus mysticus”, which in formal structure takes the place of a coda. As well as the 3rd Symphony, this also recalls the 2nd Symphony in its body of thought. Whereas in the “Resurrection Symphony” the words of Mahler are “Sterben werd ich, um zu leben” (“I will die in order to live”), the composer now sets Goethe’s words on the metamorphosis of Faust’s soul to a new, refined, higher existence: the ideal of the conquest of death into a love which stands above all things. The 8th Symphony closes with the “Veni, creator” theme once more – the springboard and fundamental idea of this truly complex and profoundly human work.

      Michael Lewin
      Translation: tolingo translations

      Tracklist hide

      CD 1
      • Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 8
        in E-flat Major
        • ERSTER TEIL · FIRST PART
          • 1.„Veni, creator spiritus“01:21
          • 2.„Imple superna gratia“03:29
          • 3.Tempo I. Allegro impetuoso
            „Infirma nostri corporis“
            01:58
          • 4.Tempo I. Allegro, etwas hastig01:15
          • 5.Sehr fließend
            „Infirma nostri corporis“
            02:43
          • 6.Plötzlich sehr breit und leidenschaftlichen Ausdrucks
            „Accende lumen sensibus“
            05:10
          • 7.„Qui Paraclitus diceris“03:05
          • 8.a tempo
            „Gloria sit Patri Domino“
            02:42
        • Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 8
          in E-flat Major
          • ERSTER TEIL · FIRST PART
            • 1.„Veni, creator spiritus“01:21
            • 2.„Imple superna gratia“03:29
            • 3.Tempo I. Allegro impetuoso
              „Infirma nostri corporis“
              01:58
            • 4.Tempo I. Allegro, etwas hastig01:15
            • 5.Sehr fließend
              „Infirma nostri corporis“
              02:43
            • 6.Plötzlich sehr breit und leidenschaftlichen Ausdrucks
              „Accende lumen sensibus“
              05:10
            • 7.„Qui Paraclitus diceris“03:05
            • 8.a tempo
              „Gloria sit Patri Domino“
              02:42
          • ZWEITER TEIL · SECOND PART
            Schlussszene aus Goethes „Faust II“
            • 9.Poco adagio07:06
            • 10.Più mosso. Allegro moderato03:48
            • 11.Chor und Echo: „Waldung, sie schwankt heran“04:46
            • 12.Pater ecstaticus: „Ewiger Wonnebrand“01:15
            • 13.Pater profundus: „Wie Felsenabgrund mir zu Füßen“04:39
            • 14.Engel: „Gerettet ist das edle Glied“00:57
            • 15.Molto leggiero
              Die jüngeren Engel: „Jene Rosen aus den Händen“
              01:47
            • 16.Die vollendeteren Engel: „Uns bleibt ein Erdenrest“01:53
            • 17.Die jüngeren Engel: „Ich spür soeben nebelnd um Felsenhöh“05:19
            • 18.Äußerst langsam. Adagissimmo
              Chor I/II: „Dir, der Unberührbaren“
              03:02
            • 19.Magna peccatrix: „Bei der Liebe, die den Füßen“05:36
            • 20.Unmerklich frischer werden
              Selige Knaben: „Er überwächst uns schon“
              04:07
            • 21.Doctor Marianus: „Blicket auf zum Retterblick“05:55
            • 22.Chorus mysticus: „Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis“06:18
          • ZWEITER TEIL · SECOND PART
            Schlussszene aus Goethes „Faust II“
            • 9.Poco adagio07:06
            • 10.Più mosso. Allegro moderato03:48
            • 11.Chor und Echo: „Waldung, sie schwankt heran“04:46
            • 12.Pater ecstaticus: „Ewiger Wonnebrand“01:15
            • 13.Pater profundus: „Wie Felsenabgrund mir zu Füßen“04:39
            • 14.Engel: „Gerettet ist das edle Glied“00:57
            • 15.Molto leggiero
              Die jüngeren Engel: „Jene Rosen aus den Händen“
              01:47
            • 16.Die vollendeteren Engel: „Uns bleibt ein Erdenrest“01:53
            • 17.Die jüngeren Engel: „Ich spür soeben nebelnd um Felsenhöh“05:19
            • 18.Äußerst langsam. Adagissimmo
              Chor I/II: „Dir, der Unberührbaren“
              03:02
            • 19.Magna peccatrix: „Bei der Liebe, die den Füßen“05:36
            • 20.Unmerklich frischer werden
              Selige Knaben: „Er überwächst uns schon“
              04:07
            • 21.Doctor Marianus: „Blicket auf zum Retterblick“05:55
            • 22.Chorus mysticus: „Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis“06:18
          • Total:02:36:22