Vienna Aroused: Mahler’s Eighth Still Does the Trick

Vienna, May 11, 2019; Vienna Konzerthaus—Even in times of inflationary Mahler performances, a Mahler Eighth is something special. It was notable from the moment you set foot into the Vienna Konzerthaus on this past Saturday afternoon. The mood was different. A little tense, a little hushed in anticipation of an “event”. The big wigs were out and about. Press was in attendance. And wait—was that just Christian Thielemann in his trademark sweater pushing by me to get to his seat?

The Vienna Philharmonic and the combined choral forces of Singverein and Singakademie under Franz Welser-Möst tackled Mahler’s difficult and expensive behemoth, derided and loved in equal measure. What makes a successful Mahler Eighth? In our event-driven culture, just putting it on is a step in the right direction. To face 355 musicians in the Konzerthaus, a space just about built for this kind of music (inaugurated in 1913 by Richard Strauss), is already thrilling for all but the most jaded audience members. But more specifically, what you’ll want are decent soloists and a finale that moves you along, step by tiny-yet-powerful step to that Mahlerian apotheosis (hat tip to Goethe) in the end: “Alles Vergängliche!”

Along those lines, this Mahler Eighth was one of the better ones I’ve heard. Half the battle for the soloists is good placement. In the Konzerthaus, singing from the organ balcony, the placement is basically perfect: Well above the orchestra and slightly above and in front of the chorus. No one has to scream their tonsils silly to get heard or, more importantly, feels as though they might have to. It helped that the cast was well above average with soprano Emily Magee (Una Poenitentium; always a little forced but absorbingly so and never unpleasant for it); alto Jennifer Johnston (Maria Aegyptiaca; indistinctly excellent); Erin Wall (Magna Peccatrix; breathy with a distinct, ever-audible metallic squillo); tenor Giorgio Berrugi (Doctor Marianu; howling with joy and heavily accented and at the limit but more than respectable in this difficult part); bass Georg Zeppenfeld (Pater Profundus; plenty sonorous and with stamina if lacking a bit of punch); and from high above—some 35 feet above the stage, behind the rarely opened decorative enclosures of the highest gallery—soprano Regula Mühlemann (Mater Gloriosa; a clear and fresh Mozart voice ideal for this part or a Mahler Fourth). Amid this pleasingly high average, alto Wiebke Lehmkuhl (Mulier Samaritana) and baritone Peter Mattei (Pater Ecstaticus) stood out: The latter for his life-affirming fervor, great pronunciation, and his dramatic (but never corny) and lusty-yet-accurate delivery. The former for her all-round pleasing, beautifully toned, round voice that melted into her surroundings without actually disappearing.

You can’t quite expect a conductor to really keep his combined forces at bay in a Mahler Eighth; to make them sing piano and pianissimo all the time. Although that’s really the point of having so many performers on stage: to do quiet parts better, not to do loud parts louder. The Vienna Philharmonic is notoriously resistant to any suggestions to that end, and perhaps Welser-Möst is not the man to enforce such a thing effectively. Consequently there were moments of blare-and-glare, both from the chorus and the brass. Individual mistakes and crooked entries existed but were quickly forgotten amid the glorious cacophony. But, and more importantly, Welser-Möst knew better than to shoot his wad early, as you would expect from someone who is in any case not known for show-boating.

The Veni creator spiritus was massive, steady, loud, and fast—good for the momentum and that tumultuous sense, but borderline hectic. The historic Rieger organ, playing the kind of music it was always meant to play, hummed and brimmed and if it could have smiled, it would have. Key to the esoteric second movement, which is the one that leaves the lasting impression afterward, was Welser-Möst’s excellent and unflappable pacing, especially and crucially in the last section from “Blicket auf” onward, where he let the harmony do the increase of tension, not either speed or volume. It was a very patient buildup until right at the end when he allowed everyone to turn it up a notch and bring even the vast Konzerthaus to the limit of its acoustic capacity. I wouldn’t dare have expected more.

Fly in the ointment? Yes: After the rousing final chord, Welser-Möst engaged in this gosh-darn holding of hands up high in the air to coerce a fake moment of “touched post-musical reverence”. Only because Abbado once managed that naturally, conductors now adopt this abominably cheap gimmick. Makes you want to holler: Trust your delivery and put your arms down already! You look like one of those “Police Squad!” epilogues where they fake a 1970s-style freeze frame, except someone pouring coffee in the background or a convict escaping gives the game away. In this case it was a clarinetist who sensibly put his instrument down, not having any of the nonsense. After the forcibly thoughtful interlude, it was the usual cascade of applause and standing ovations. Mahler’s Eighth still does the trick!