Sunday, August 23, 2009

The SFS's New Mahler Symphony #8 Recording: A Late Romantic, Supreme Masterpiece "Out of Time" With The Western Musical Tradition?

The San Francisco Symphony, under Michael Tilson Thomas, has just released the latest in its series of self-produced, live recordings of the complete major works of Gustav Mahler - a multi-year project begun in the late summer of 2001, in the shadow of 9/11. On the new, two-CD set, Mahler's crowning Symphony #8 for eight vocal soloists, adult and children's choruses, and very large orchestra -- recorded in Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco in November 2008 -- is satisfyingly coupled with Mahler's extended opening Adagio from his 10th Symphony, the only movement which Mahler lived to orchestrate fully, recorded in April 2006. The Symphony #8, in a somewhat conservative musical language largely stripped of the Austro-Hungarian imperial militaristic, Jewish, and Alpine folk musical elements incorporated into many of Mahler's other symphonies and song cycles, lasts approximately 85 minutes in this welcome version; while the Adagio from the Symphony #10 (in Mahler's newer, forward looking musical language, again "purified" of most outside musical contexts) lasts 28 minutes. (Despite the coupling order which could not be finessed here on CD, one should certainly listen to -- and study in depth -- the Symphony #8 before the Adagio to Symphony #10, given the two works' strikingly different musical languages. Also, despite a small typo on the box set, the two CDs last for almost two hours.) While single CD versions of Mahler's Symphony #8 exist, lasting, for example, 77 and 80 minutes in new and old versions, respectively, under Gergiev and Solti, the new San Francisco Symphony version, under Michael Tilson Thomas, is musically and emotionally outstanding, alternating somewhat relaxed and highly lucid soloistic passages with full-throated and well-balanced choral passages at different moments in the music drama. All of the soloists are excellent, as are the boys and girls choruses and the orchestra. The CD set includes expert program notes by the late Michael Steinberg.

How should we place Mahler's Symphony #8 in the tradition of Western music? Alongside Mahler's symphonic song cycle "Das Lied von der Erde", it is almost certainly Mahler's finest masterpiece of post-Wagnerian, conservative diatonic musical Romanticism. This late "symphony" is ultimately richer than the now ever popular Mahler Symphonies #1 and #5 (each to be performed by the San Francisco Symphony, under Michael Tilson Thomas, next month as part of the San Francisco Symphony's important, three-week Mahler Festival); and equal to, if not surpassing, the harmonically richer and exploratory (matching mature Wagner, and, for example, the opening of Bruckner's Symphony #9) Mahler Symphonies # 6, 7, 9, and 10. And, Mahler's Symphonies # 2, 3, and 4, despite their highly unusual and imaginative wonders, fall short musically and conceptually compared to Mahler's Symphony #8.

Again, how should we place Mahler's Symphony #8 in the tradition of Western music? We all recognize that the supreme masterpieces of the Western baroque era are Monteverdi's music dramas, J.S. Bach's Passions and his musically (and theologically) quasi-encyclical Mass in B minor, and a still musicologically evolving set of Handel's operas and oratorios. The "purely" classical age (through either Beethoven's Symphony #3 or Symphony #5) added the Mozart-da Ponte trilogy of operas and Haydn's autumnal oratorios -- "The Creation" and "The Seasons".

But how do we think about the flowerings of musical Romanticism that took place during the "long 19th century" (see, for example, the writings of Michael P. Steinberg) that lasted from the late, "dark" works of Mozart through Mahler, Wolf, and Scryabin? In the early 19th century "proper", we have Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, as well as the supreme miniature musical-dramatic masterpieces of Schubert -- many of the greatest (and last) based on Goethe or Heinrich Heine (for example, Schubert's "Der Doppelganger"). By the later 19th century, we have Brahms's balanced and human German Requiem, Verdi's and Faure's alternative concepts of a Latin Requiem (as well as Verdi's great cycle of mature operas), and Wagner's tetralogy, which composers on both sides of the Altantic ocean tried to "match" through tetralogies of oratorios -- in America, by Horace Nichol[l]s in his "Adam, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" tetralogy of oratorios of 1890 (most likely, not achieved in full orchestration), and in Germany, by Felix Draeseke in his "Christus" tetralogy of oratorios (1899, fully achieved, orchestrated, and available today on CDs.)

The San Francisco Symphony Mahler Symphony #8 helps the listener to understand the composer's late Romantic musical conception by providing four tracks for the First Part of the "Symphony", based on a 28 short line medieval Latin hymn (in seven segments) starting "Veni, creator Spiritus, mentes tuorum visita [Creator Spirit, by whose aid The world's foundations first were laid]," before the usual separate trackings for the segments of Mahler's setting of the extended German-language closing of the Second Part of Goethe's "Faust" (with the extended musical landscape painting of the opening of the Second Part matching the extended musical landscapre painting which opens the disproportionally long final song of the "Das Lied von der Erde" symphonic song-cycle). While the First Part (in four sections) of the Symphony #8 is really not the supreme musical masterpiece that are the late Josquin des Prez Masses (in five traditional sections, but of comparable length, if not sonic and human vocal resources), the Second Part of the Mahler Symphony #8 achieves for its composer a supreme masterpiece of Western music, one that composers writing at the time of Goethe -- Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert -- were not able to attain in a similar, traditionally humanistic manner of text-setting and artistic collaboration, given Goethe problematic relationship to classical music. In this late "Symphony", Mahler "completes" 19th century Romanticism in a manner unlike Schubert's "Der Doppelganger", Wagner's "Ring", or Brahms's German Requiem (and in an "experimental" way that is matched at the end of the long 19th century by, perhaps, only Hugo Wolf.)

The San Francisco Symphony's upcoming three-week Mahler Festival, in September, will feature, in addition to Symphonies #1 and #5, the Ruckert Songs, the Songs of a Wayfarer, the Scherzo from the Symphony #7, and selections from Symphonies #9 and #10. The featured soloists in the song cycles will be Susan Graham and Thomas Hampson. The second week of the Festival will feature mixed programming and will be filmed as part of the San Francisco Symphony's excellent "Keeping Score" educational programming for PBS.


San Francisco Symphony

San Francisco Symphony live performances of Mahler Symphonies #8 and 10 (Adagio)

Keeping Score


Header photo: Buchenwald, Germany in the middle of the twentieth century.


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