The Berliner Philharmoniker took on Mahler's Symphony No. 8, for only the seventh time in its history, in a performance that was transmitted live in the Digital Concert Hall. It was an event of significant magnitude that brought together a bewildering confluence of forces and efforts both in performance and in transmition.
Conductor Simon Rattle prefaced the symphony with two choral works, the Crucifixus by Antonio Lotti, and the infamous 40-part motet "Spem in alium" by Thomas Tallis. While these works felt a little elbowed-out of place by the massive opening movement of the Mahler Symphony, they served two important functions. First, their 15 minute combined duration made an intermission in between movements of the Mahler symphony seem workable. Secondly, they represented texts from the sacred tradition set within a sacred context.
This context was important. In Mahler 8, the first movement explores the secular implications of personal creativity within a sacred text, and the second movement treats a secular text with sacred implications.
Rattle produced a performance with clear goals. The lift into E major in the opening section "Accende lumen sensibus" had the energy and had the optimism of encoded aesthetic realization. Rattle prolonged the intensity of this section with terrific authority, through the marches, the double fugue, the parenthetical interlude of soloists in D-flat major, and landed back with perfect force back in E-flat major. This kind of lift and subsequent directional goals made the second movement feel increasingly operatic.
The combined forces of the MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig and the Rundfunkchor Berlin sounded great. They were particularly impressive during the awakening chorus & echoes of their second movement entrance. Often one hears only staccato sound from singers during this passage, but these choirs created a resonant, ringing sound that made the text seem divine rather than spooky.
The soloists blended effectively in ensemble. Of the soloists, Bass John Relyea gave a vibrant and carefully conceived performance as Pater Profundus. He made us both consider, and luxuriate in, music that can sound transitional.
There were moments where the special chamber music qualities of this work came through. Examples include the music for solo strings in both movements, and that wonderful passage in E major where the harps and sectional violins take us to a different realm (just before the choir sings Dir, der Unberührbaren). But there were also moments, as with the passages for mandolin, where the sound did not carry over the wires as one would have hoped.
The chorus mysticus gave me chills. "Alles Vergängliche," whispered the choir, "ist nur ein Gleichnis." The digital age has given us new possibilities for permanence. The combined effort and spirit of this performance might well teach us to think in new ways.