It is simplicity itself, the true symphony, in which the most beautiful instrument of all [the human voice] is led to its calling. --Mahler, correspondence on the Eighth Symphony.
Tome on marriage litigation stuffed into my purse, guilty knowledge about the hours of the open library I was missing stuffed to the back of my mind, I sped downtown last night for the only concert in this week of Mahler at Carnegie Hall that I could possibly make. Valery Gergiev led what I think can safely be called his orchestra, that of the Mariinsky, with soloists from the same theater and Orfeón Pamplonés, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy. I was told at the box office that, by request of Maestro Gergiev, holders of the ten-dollar student tickets would be seated in the first rows, rather than in the back of the balcony. I was thrilled. I love being able to sit in Carnegie at all for that money, but actually walking into the beautiful gold hall, rather than climbing up the back stairs and trying not to bump my head on the ceiling and sitting with my knees jammed against the row in front of me, was a real treat. It did affect the balance of how I heard the music (the choirs probably rode over the orchestra more for anyone who wasn't sitting practically underneath the first violinist) but such issues were counterbalanced for me by getting to watch the conductor and the musicians... and feeling the music of the climax vibrating through my bones.
I knew from the first chord both that I was far less familiar with this symphony than I had thought--can't even remember the last time I heard it, a very bad sign--and that I was in for a treat. That indefinable quality in a performance--energy seems the closest, still inadequate word--that keeps you breathless on the edge of your seat, attuned to every detail, overwhelmed by the whole, waiting to see what will happen next... whatever that is, it was there in spades. See this neat video for Maestro Gergiev talking about Mahler; go here to find his recording of Mahler's 8th with the LSO. The members of the orchestra were responsive both to their conductor and to each other; I was touched, but hardly surprised, to see many of them shaking hands with their seat neighbors during the final applause. I don't know where to start describing the performance itself. Any temptation to create a conceptual dichotomy between mysticism and gutsy, even earthy human emotion was rejected by this performance. There was irresistible momentum, and yet there were passages that seemed to exist out of time. As a medievalist, I love the ninth-century hymn by Rabanus Maurus, of which Mahler's first movement seems less a setting than a passionate (re)interpretation. Temptation and doubt, and their old personifications, the demons of medieval art, appeared in pizzicato strings. The Latin was clearly and expressively sung. As the richness of sound grew, and I myself grew more and more worked up, I was half-afraid that the ending of the movement would be spoiled by applause, but no: only a brief, suppressed sigh of released tension as audience and performers gathered themselves for the second movement.
Sublime is an overused word. But this gave me chills, and goosebumps. The soloists were all fine, with Evgeny Nikitin a resonant Pater Profundus, Liudmila Dudinova an exquisite Mater Gloriosa, and Anastasia Kalagina moving and expressive as Gretchen. Gergiev's command over the ensembles was incredible. The answer to what he does when he can't lead by interpretative dance is: he uses his hands, baton-free, sometimes with sweeping gestures from the shoulder, sometimes with just movements of the fingers. He still rocked back and forth and occasionally jumped off the ground, as well. And I don't think this could be accused of a lack of subtlety. It was totally committed to producing huge sound, but the sound ranged from the ethereal (e.g. winds at the beginning of the second movement) to the triumphant or terrifying intensity of fortissimo. Special mention should go to Kirill Terentyev, the first violinist, who took my breath away with each of his solos. I didn't know how to begin this; I don't know how to end it. But I refused to let the problematic "Ewig-Weibliche" bother me, and I held my breath and held back my tears and believed "Das Unzulängliche, Hier wird's Ereignis; Das Unbeschreibliche, Hier ist's getan." The audience was applauding the second Gergiev dropped his hand, and on its feet almost the second afterwards. And with a few exceptions of early escapers, we stayed that way while I lost track of the bows taken. Gergiev himself hung back a good deal, gesturing different groups to stand, eventually coming forward enough that the mouthed thank you turned to spasiba. And I like to think that no one left unchanged. But that's just me.