Amongst the undisputed masterpieces that comprise Mahler's run of symphonies from No. 5 to No. 9, there is this oddball, the 8th, which still continues to provoke debate. It was certainly an impressive way of getting the Proms season underway: eight vocal soloists, six choirs, an organ and an orchestra of colossal proportions, even by early twentieth-century standards. And you could sense the thrill of anticipation in the hall build during the ten minutes or so it took to get everyone on stage. But in live performance does this work deliver the spiritual uplift promised by its two texts – the Latin hymn 'Veni creator spiritus' and the last scene of Goethe's Faust?
For me, it was the more intimate moments that were the most enjoyable. As the second part progresses, we witness Faust's soul ascend all the way from the rocky depths into the highest reaches of heaven. It opens with an orchestral depiction of nature: heavy rocks, chasms, crashing waves, the forest with tree trunks bunched together and roots clinging to the ground. Jirí Belohlávek gave us a glimpse of how he has become a world-class conductor, wringing a dark, tense atmosphere out of Mahler's sparse orchestration.
The soloists were billed as 'Prom debut artists', but all of them are seasoned professionals with plenty of operatic experience under their respective belts. There is always a problem with projection in the cavernous Albert Hall, but not for the incredible mezzo-soprano voice of Stephanie Blythe – taking the part of Mulier Samaritana in the Goethe. Not once did she appear to be making any effort, and yet her smooth, rich tone was at all times clearly audible above the orchestra. I would love to hear her in Wagner. Two other notables. Stefan Vinke, in the only tenor part as Doctor Marianus, had a delicate, clean tone, especially in the higher register, which suited the words he had to sing in praise of the 'Queen of Heaven'. And soprano Twyla Robinson as Gretchen, who might have struggled occasionally to be heard, but was perhaps the most expressive of the singers.
As for those massive orchestral and choral tuttis throughout the first part and at the end of the second. Well, the, let's say, 500 people making a highly controlled and very loud noise were able to elicit the physiological responses one associates with terror. However, this was not really awe at the sublime, but the result of being overwhelmed by the sound. In fact, I found the whole of 'Veni creator spiritus' to be nothing but hollow affirmation. I am not criticizing the choirs here, they did an admirable job, but the piece itself: when there has been no struggle, no pain or suffering, such unqualified jubilation just sounds empty.
Overall, then, the evening had the feeling of a special occasion and the performance was committed with moments of real beauty. However, it wasn't enough to change my mind about a work which I still believe is fatally flawed.
By Marc Brooks
Photo: Proms opening night 2009