I’ve had three night to sleep on it and I am still under the spell of Mahler’s Symphony of 1,000 conducted by Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhaus Orchestra on Thursday, as the climax to the city’s revelatory and rehabilitatory Mahler Festival.
Chailly has conducted the eighth more than any other Mahler symphony and – though I cannot prove it – more than any man in the last century. He makes no apologies for a work many musicians consider unwieldy and overblown, the only symphony Mahler wrote in a sense of near-trance, dashed off in six summer weeks and never revised. Mahler tinkered endlessly with every other score: the Eighth he conceived as perfection.
Chailly takes much the same view. From the opening blast of Veni, Creator Spiritus, through the diffuse passages of choral singing to the moments of total silence that precede catharsis in the finale, he finds an ineluctable unity of vision. The hymnal first section was taken fairly fast, in less than 25 minutes, while the Faustian second half was allowed time and space for dramatic cohesion.
Each of the five separate choirs was differentiated by vocal colour and the eight soloists had distinctive roles Instead of becoming a gigantic mush as it does in vast arenas like the Royal Albert Hall, the Eighth acquired both intimacy and analytic clarity in the supportive acoustic of the hexagonal Gewandhaus. The orchestral playing throughout was supple, passionate and powerful, an apotheosis of the art.
An overwhelming performance was climaxed by a 15-minute ovation, after which conductor and soloists trooped off to a nearby hotel lounge to face questions from the audience as they have done throughout this historic cycle. Others watched it on live streaming in the foyers. Mahler’s face was plastered all over the centre of the town where he was once junior conductor. Leipzig has advertised itself in the past as the city where Bach and Mendelssohn worked and Wagner was born. Its image has been augmented to include Mahler who, though he spent less than two years on its payroll (1886-88), composed his first symphony during that time.
Leipzig, a former cosmopolitan trade and publishing centre, entered obscurity during the Communist era and beyond. The Mahler cycle drew visitors from several continents and restored its former polyglot character. Leipzig, for a fortnight, was a world hub once more.
Restoring Mahler to Leipzig was a joint personal mission and a tremendous act of long-term planning for Chailly and the Gewandhaus executive director, Andreas Schulz. When I saw them over lunch, both men managed to look totally drained and yet somehow revitalised.
Three performances of the Eight conclude the cycle, the last of them tonight.
You can watch the whole performance of the Eighth for the next seven days on Arte. Here’s the link.