The indescribable, here becomes reality: MAHLER’S EIGHTH at De Doelen, Rotterdam

MAHLER’S EIGHTH by the Rotterdam Philharmonisch conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin at De Doelen, Rotterdam on 23rd March 2018

Mahler’s Eighth has certainly earned its place in the record books of classical music. There are over 500 people on stage, including nine (!) singers, three concert choirs, one children’s choir and a large orchestra. Those sheer numbers create an unparalleled musical force.

This piece is also a challenge for the conductor: The various dynamic variations, from one end of the scale to the other, have to be coordinated and controlled, while still keeping the feeling of the music. And because there are so many people on stage, a conductor has to literally conduct, physically communicating his vision of the music so everyone on stage gets his message.

Directly before this Mahler Eighth in Rotterdam, Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducted runs of Strauss’s Elektra and Wagner’s Parsifal at the Met. And the influence of these two pieces was evident in his interpretation last night. The first part featured the strong, futuristic atonal edges as well as the complicated musical structures that we know from Strauss’ one-act success. This music is deviously complicated, demanding a complicated musical structure like the double-fugue be transposed onto this monstrous sound apparatus. That is not an easy task for a conductor.

And like so many before him, Nezet-Seguin does not manage to completely solve these complications. In the first part, there is a lack of structure and transparency, Mahler is anything but easy-listening here. Especially in the passages where the soloists have to sing together as a group, their voices do not form a singular, well-sounding unit. That may also be because Sarah Connolly sadly had to cancel and was replaced by Michelle DeYoung. Instead, the pentecost choral Veni Creator Spiritus shines brightest in the choral numbers, where the stellar voices of Orfeon Donostiarra, Groot Omroep Koor, the Rotterdam Symphony Chorus and the Nationaal Kinderkoor can give their all. Still, there is that lack of clarity that prevents the audience from truly gaining access to this music.

At the beginning of the second part we hear the influence of Parsifal. The tempi are slow, the Poco Adagio is a clear and undisturbed sublime lake of sound. The dynamics are carefully layered throughout the orchestra, affording the brass some wonderful opportunities to shine. In the first two orchestral movements of part two, Nezet-Seguin forms a unified body of sound, that is then continually expanded in the arias of the individual singers. When Markus Werba beautifully sings Ewiger Wonnebrand, one is faintly reminded of Gurnemanz’s Karfreitagszauber. 

Michael Schade’s tenor voice is overly pressed tonight, his timbre is slightly restricted. But that may also be due to the incredible demands that Mahler makes of the singers. The whole ensemble including Christof Fischesser and Mihoko Fujimura delivers stellar performance in the individual arias of part two.

The choirs never let up either, at times even dominating the orchestra. Especially in Jene Rosen aus den Händen, the orchestra is buried by the sheer tonal force of 4 choirs at the top of their craft. The orchestral force is also reduced because Nezet-Seguin has asked for an unusually light string section for this piece (only 10 celli?)

Indeed, the strings are remarkably subdued throughout the evening, even in their pizzicato passages towards the finale. Nezet-Seguin is constructing a different orchestral sound here, where the woodwinds and brass sections dominate and role out a grand red carpet of sound for singers and choirs. While that makes for rousing climaxes, I find that transparency and clarity are still somewhat lacking, compared to what other greats such as Pierre Boulez achieved in this piece.

But the Finale is something from another planet. Listeners and musicians alike are rewarded with splendid E-Flat major chords all around. Nezet-Seguin’s intelligent handling of the organ (supporting, subdued) and the choirs’ stellar efforts combine to make this finale one of the greatest musical experiences you will ever have. Beginning in a triple pianissimo, Nezet-Seguin animates all involved and manages to solve the riddle of the Eight in these final minutes.

Standing ovations after the final notes, totally deserved. Even though this interpretation could have featured more transparency and maturity at some stages, a complete performance comes together at the end, when everyone on stage joins forces. The brass is flawless and all on stage brilliantly communicate Mahler’s musical vision in the final bars: The indiscribable, here it becomes reality.   Yannik Eisenaecher     24th March 2018


Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics