There are only two viable ways to end a Mahler cycle – by saying farewell to life, as the composer did in his Ninth and last completed symphony, or by aspiring to the eternal, as expressed in his Eighth. Lorin Maazel and the Philharmonia Orchestra chose the latter. You can see the two symphonies as different sides of the same coin, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Whereas the unspoken fears and uncertainties and reflective passions that constitute the Ninth drew from Mahler some of his deepest music, the articulation of so much hot air in the text of the Eighth presupposes a quality of inspiration that not even Mahler could match. He went instead for quantity.
Performances that get nearest to its spirit are rarely the most polished. They succeed by default – by embodying the sense of aspiration and struggle inherent in a work of such lofty ideals and gargantuan display. Sunday’s performance was not one of those. How could it be, with a conductor who stamps his technical control so manifestly on every bar? As so often with Maazel, sheer fluency militated against the music’s imaginative core. A work with “go for broke” emblazoned on it came across as a study in earthbound perfectionism. Even in his 80s, Maazel cannot connect with the spiritual in music.
This had nothing to do with the fact that, in the run-up to the final choral perorations, a member of the orchestra’s double bass section very audibly and visibly collapsed. Maazel’s sang froid saved the day and elsewhere kept the massed choirs together in a way few others could – to notable effect in the opening outburst and the layered crescendo at the end of Part One.
The most impressive contributions in Part Two came from the soloists – Sally Matthews and Ailish Tynan soaring ecstatically in the soprano parts, Sarah Connolly’s mezzo radiating belief and Stefan Vinke’s Doctor Marianus hitting all the notes, if not with the prettiest of tenors. On the surface, then, a successful performance, but one whose impact vanished instantly.