Mahler’s Eighth Symphony

Jascha Horenstein

BBC Orchestra


Leif Segerstam

Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra


By Lee Sandlin

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is his largest and most ambitious work. That’s saying a lot, given that Mahler routinely stacked his music up against the cosmos. Other composers may have been content to call their pleasant little trifles the Pastoral or Italian symphonies; Mahler wrote the Titan Symphony, the Resurrection Symphony, The Song of the Night, The Song of the Earth. But with the Eighth, he set out to really push the envelope of grandeur. It’s an immense fusion of symphony, mass, and oratorio for augmented orchestra, three choirs, and a platoon of soloists–and even this overburdened stage was a grudging compromise with practicality. The title indicates his true scale: Symphony of a Thousand.

The Eighth is so long and diffuse that most conductors end up not so much interpreters as traffic cops. A maestro doesn’t have much chance to show off his individual style when this unmanageable horde of musicians must somehow be held together for more than an hour and a half. Without an iron grip, the endlessly shifting combinations of choirs and instruments wander out of phase; none of the many, many crescendos registers as more than an indistinct blare; and the long stretches of development sink into a kind of becalmed bustle. Everyone onstage and in the audience grows increasingly bored and angry at the thought of how much of the score remains to be played–thousands of bars stretch out before them like a jammed multilane highway.

An adequate performance is a rare event; any performance better than that is a classic. But there’s one so good it’s become legendary: a 1959 concert given by the BBC Orchestra, conducted by Jascha Horenstein. It’s never been available on CD–the BBC and Horenstein’s estate have announced its release, canceled, reannounced, and (most recently) postponed it indefinitely. In the meantime the Italian label Arlecchino has helpfully stepped in with its own version of this performance. It has some sound problems that the authorized release (if it ever does appear) will presumably clean up: there’s enough hiss in places to suggest the concert is being given in the middle of a downpour, and a couple patches of flutter are so bad you’d swear the choirs are pluckily carrying on underwater. But the quality of the performance overcomes the ragged production. This is easily the most coherent and exciting Eighth I’ve ever heard.

Horenstein isn’t a name most classical listeners will know. He came out of the great European tradition of conducting–he worked for a while for Wilhelm Furtwängler–but somehow never made it into a prestige position. Instead he spent his long career (from the 40s until his death in 1973) as a perennial guest conductor at a lot of outback orchestras–a kind of wandering master craftsman of the conductor’s guild, dazzling Hicksville with a little maestro glitz. As a result, most of his recordings, which are strewn across a bunch of esoteric or defunct labels, are defaced by inferior orchestral playing or worse sound engineering. But here and there are flashes of glory: a superb set of Rachmaninoff piano concertos with Earl Wild, a furious ride through Liszt’s A Faust Symphony–and some astonishing recordings of Mahler.

Horenstein was psychically attuned to Mahler in a way few conductors have ever been. Everything that can make Mahler’s symphonies such trying experiences for an audience he treated with profound and illuminating sympathy. The baffling swerves of tone, the eruptions of hectic melodrama, the collapses into grotesquerie, and the glacial dissolves into ethereal wonder: in Horenstein’s hands it all sounds like a natural idiom–volatile perhaps (and Horenstein himself, not coincidentally, was notoriously hard to get along with), but deeply meditated and rigorous. His version of the chaotic Third (on Unicorn) is a triumph of slowly mounting intensity. He gave one of the few performances of the intransigent Seventh (Music & Arts) that make any kind of emotional sense: he keeps finding odd, gentle valleys of lyricism among the harsh ranges of orchestral cacophony. And his Lied von der Erde (also on Music & Arts) is a vision of mourning beauty, the drifting clusters of instruments inhabiting a space as delicate and limitless as a Chinese watercolor.

But the Eighth calls for a different set of tactics. It’s Mahler’s attempt to top Beethoven at grand affirmation, by souping up a choral symphony so cataclysmic it makes the “Ode to Joy” sound like a beer-hall tune. It doesn’t have conventional movements: the first part, which runs about half an hour, is a thunderous setting of the medieval Latin hymn “Veni, Creator Spiritus” (“Come, creator spirit”). Mahler is summoning the Deity into the concert hall like a coach invoking Jesus before the kickoff. The second half (once the Lord has been comfortably seated during the intermission) is a setting of the most relentlessly upbeat scene in German literature, the conclusion of the second part of Goethe’s Faust, where Faust rises to heaven. Mahler turns this into an endless pageant of ecstatic angel choirs, punctuated by arias by special guest stars such as the Virgin Mary.

The challenge for conductors–assuming they get all the cherubs to keep the beat–is to find some kind of edge in Mahler’s uncharacteristic sweetness. Ordinarily such a metaphysically heroic subject would call out Mahler’s most tumultuous dissonances, his grandest salvos of sheer noise. But throughout he maintains a deliberate tonal delicacy, avoiding harsh transitions and unharmonious crescendos, as though he were building an Everest of cotton candy.

Horenstein’s solution is to treat the score as a full-blown opera and pretend there’s actually a lot of suspense about whether Faust will make the cut at the gates of Heaven. The arias, which are normally indistinguishable from the busy background, are so insistently tense and dramatic you’d think the soloists strayed in from a rehearsal of Boito’s Mefistofele. The three choirs, held together with dazzling precision, all dovetail in swooning diminuendos or gather in a babel of excitement and anxiety. The orchestra, meanwhile, is hurried into each of the crescendos with increasing urgency, then allowed to fall away with prolonged, ostentatious relief. The result is that the whole hour of the second part builds like a spiritual thriller: heaven is glimpsed, lost, and glimpsed again–and at last unfolds everywhere in endless sparkling streamers of joy.

The performance is so brilliant that it creates an unexpected problem. I’m so used to being disappointed by performances of the Eighth that I’ve never had to ask how good the symphony itself really is. But here is a rich, profoundly felt, and exhilarating treatment–and I’ve ended up thinking Mahler’s whole project is ridiculous. It’s all so overblown and hysterical, so determinedly uplifting, so monotonously ecstatic that it comes to seem like a colossal fake: a Hollywood tribute to the Big Guy in the box seat.

That’s always the problem with Mahler. How seriously can you ever take him? He seems at times like a parody of Beethoven, a garish apparition in which the worst excesses of the Romantic movement–egomania, spiritual arrogance, a kind of bullying humanism–swell up to cosmic size and then burst. All of Mahler’s grandest effects seem insubstantial; none of his visionary ecstasy convinces. What kind of faith requires a thousand musicians to bellow it? Surely the answer is, an insecure one. The Eighth is an expression of a genuine religious feeling only if doubt counts as a religious feeling: doubt that the creator spirit will ever show, even if a million musicians call him, doubt that Faust would have a chance for heaven if Goethe hadn’t rigged the game in advance.

But Mahler is a great enough composer that no performance of his music is definitive, and as magnificent as Horenstein’s Eighth is, there are other approaches to the score that better avoid the feeling that it’s a fake–or at least suggest ways of finding the fakery a good thing.

Consider something about Mahler that’s usually forgotten: during his lifetime he was much better known as a conductor than a composer. This is true of many of the greatest maestros. They all think of themselves primarily as composers who fell into conducting as a way to pay the bills. As it happens, very little maestro music other than Mahler’s has made it into the repertoire. There’s a good reason for that: fate was not being cruel when it diverted Furtwängler and Otto Klemperer from a career in composition. But the music of these wannabes bears an intriguing resemblance to Mahler’s in one respect: a fascination with the technical resources of the orchestra.

That may sound like a platitude. But the truth is that many great composers haven’t given a damn about the orchestra as such. They’re concerned with the projection of their own transcendent internal world. Practicality is a nuisance. Wagner blithely wrote music for instruments that didn’t exist; Beethoven specified metronome speeds to dictate tempi the way he heard them in his mind, and he didn’t care if they were physically impossible to play. But conductors necessarily spend their entire careers contending with the sheer physicality of music. Who can play what, for how long, how loud, how fast. They become profoundly aware of all the subtlest effects an orchestra can deliver–and of all the unheard wonders it could deliver if only a composer asked for them.

This is the unexplored side of Mahler: the man writing music simply to show off what an orchestra could do. It’s the side on display in Leif Segerstam’s new Mahler series on Chandos.

Segerstam is right now no better known than Horenstein–even though he does have a full-time gig with the Danish National Radio Symphony and a bunch of prestige deals with big-name orchestras around Europe. His CDs, unlike Horenstein’s, all sound just fine: they have that diamondlike digital iciness that people now take as the standard of authenticity. His reputation is nonexistent only because his discography consists almost entirely of works by obscure Swedish and Finnish modernist composers. God knows, I mean no disrespect to the Scandinavian scene, which I’m sure is just seething with creative ferment; but we over here are sadly unprepared to savor the unique magic Segerstam brings to Ture Rangstrom’s Symphony no. 2.

Fortunately Segerstam’s Chandos contract has been bringing him into sensor range, and it’s now possible to get a feel for what a terrific conductor he is. His first venture into the familiar was a dazzling set of Sibelius symphonies: dark and soaringly dramatic, and filled with the sort of risky interpretive games that few conductors these days have the nerve to try. He’s now almost all the way through a complete Mahler, and the results so far are equally spectacular.

Segerstam’s advantage is that he’s a conductor who wants to be a composer–he’s recorded 18 of his own symphonies. It also helps that his music is relentlessly dissonant, so he’s not intimidated by Mahler’s most rebarbative exercises. In fact, his take on Mahler is so accepting and exuberant you’d swear he was playing it for laughs. The funeral march of the Fifth Symphony, for instance, is as goofy as cartoon music. But what the hell: how often can you hear a Mahler performance that can legitimately be described as fun?

His Eighth has none of the drama of Horenstein’s. The tempi are slow, broad, and unruffled: crescendos arrive and dissipate with easy liquidity. The soloists melt in and out of their orchestral settings as pleasantly as forest birds–they could be singing about anything in the world but the mystery of salvation. Despite his obvious mastery of the huge forces at his disposal, Segerstam doesn’t seem for quite a while to have a thought in his head but this unobtrusive progress. He shepherds his musicians among the highest peaks as though ambling through a benign country landscape.

But gradually something else begins to happen: moments, then extended passages, and finally unbroken cascades of glittering beauty. If the performance is superficial, it’s a surface of exquisite textures and rapturous effects. I’ve never heard so many of Mahler’s subtlest touches come through with such luminous clarity. When midway through the first part the choirs sink to a pianissimo murmur and a lone violin line comes meandering in out of nowhere (a moment that plays like an indifferent blur in Horenstein), the result is electrifying: it’s like seeing a dove glide serenely across a cathedral dome.

This is not a performance that displays any deep religious intensity. Instead Mahler comes off as a virtuoso of the technical resources of religious music: a scholar of traditional harmony and the equal of Bach or Beethoven at contriving complex interplays between masses of voices and instruments. The length of the score comes to seem not so much a matter of grandiose spiritual ambition as a practical necessity–it just has to make room for so many of these jeweled, ever-changing nuances of orchestral color. In the end you find yourself thinking that this may have been Mahler’s real torment: he couldn’t bear to leave anything out.

I can’t say I’m convinced that such wizardry is all there is to Mahler. I don’t think you can get away forever with pretending, as Segerstam does, that Mahler’s metaphysical storminess is nothing more than Barnum-style hokum. But I can’t deny the sheer pleasure I get from such an unsomber, unbrooding performance of music that’s become the standard for crushing seriousness. Maybe Mahler ought to remain the doomed Romantic hermit on the mountaintop, contemplating the harsh mysteries of the cosmos; but on this one unexpected spree he’s a carefree millionaire, scattering his wealth to every passerby.