Mahler’s Eighth in Taipei

performed by the Taipei Symphony Orchestra and National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra under Lan Shui, with:

Emma Bell, soprano
左涵瀛 (Hanying Tso), soprano
黃莉錦 (Li-Chin Huang), soprano
Charlotte Hellekant, alto
陳珮琪 (Pei-Chi Chen), alto
Barry Banks, tenor
巫白玉璽 (Wu Bai-Yu-Hsi), baritone
沈洋 (Shenyang), bass

and five choirs (photo at the bottom of this article).

Need I express how thrilled I am to finally have the chance to hear Mahler 8 live? Well, I can’t. It’s the final symphony of Mahler’s, excepting the tenth, which I do hope to hear, that I hadn’t heard live, until tonight.

I don’t take photos in the concert hall anymore, but one of my fellow concertgoers did, even if there’s a bar that blocks the only open space on the stage. 508 people there. Well, actually just shy of 500 since the conductor, 8 vocalists and offstage brass aren’t pictured. Wow. 

Two local orchestras joined forces for this gargantuan performance, totaling more than 500 people onstage. There was the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra, or NTSO, and the Taipei Symphony, the former being the oldest orchestra in the country. Lan Shui has cooperated with them on many occasions, and they’ve recently been offering really wonderful musicianship in the recent performances of theirs that I’ve heard, almost all Mahler (Das Lied, 1, and 7 in just the past year, not counting their 5 and 9 that I didn’t attend). They’ll be doing 3 in December, but you couldn’t ask for a more grandiose season opener than Mahler’s ‘Sinfonie der Tausend’. 

I still remember the first time I put on Mahler’s eighth. I’d been making an earnest effort to digest the earlier symphonies, and I’d gotten up to the sixth, and while on still a very surface level, I was proud with the overall impression I had of the six works. I’d still not really come to have a real full understanding of the seventh, but the first time I put on the eighth, which happened to be Solti’s recording, which happens to be the absolute best recording there is of the work, my jaw literally dropped. I was speechless.

And I was speechless tonight.

‘Surreal’ is one of those words that’s overused, like ‘awesome’ in the true sense of awesome, but it really was surreal. Maybe I’m just fanboy-ing a little bit, but I’m still feeling the radiant warm glow of an astonishingly powerful Mahler 8.

If you know me in person, you may have seen me carrying the score around recently, with sticky notes and pencil, maybe cuing a horn or chorus off to the left of my desk. I have in my library a half a dozen recordings of this work, but there’s just nothing that can prepare you for that first growl of the organ and the ‘Veni…‘ that comes after it. It was absolutely 100% surreal.

For one, I feel that this is a thing that shouldn’t exist. Speaking of the piece itself, which I wrote about already more than a year ago, it’s just monumental, a wonder of the musical world. It is a testament to Mahler’s genius that something can be this enormous and yet still be so clear. It’s in some superposition, where the whole thing is so dense that it should collapse in on itself in a massive tumble of horns, harps and choruses, but instead it’s a mellifluous, astoundingly powerful thing of beauty. But enough about the piece itself.

Credit to the composer aside, it really takes something to bring this work to life in a manner that does it justice while not going up in flames. Lan Shui leading the NTSO/TSO seemed like a partnership that’s been ongoing for decades. He led the massive forces with aplomb, a strong command of the music, and a very good treatment of the music. There was only one section that really had me surprised at how briskly it was taken, almost to a distasteful degree (Una Poenitentium’s ‘Neige, neige, du Ohnegleiche). It’s such a heavenly, light little corner of this work and they blazed right on through it, but that aside, it was a superb reading.

As for the performance, I expected it to be good. Both the NTSO and TSO have been doing very well lately. The NTSO’s Mahler 2 almost two years ago was passionate and fiery, but left something to be desired technically. Their Mahler 1, 7, and Das Lied were much more compelling efforts, so I expected it to be great, but I was astounded at the level of playing.

To the guy who played the lead trumpet, you were incredible. There are some absolutely stratospheric notes for the instrument in this work, and he nailed them all, from the soaring high ones at fff or whatever to the soft, quiet entries, he was remarkable. Horns, overall, were superb. There was a blurp or two, but the overall sound from the 10 of them (give or take) was remarkable.

Part I seemed like it was over in a flash. No sooner had the first E flats rung out than we got the final ‘Patri!’, and I think I may have released an audible moan. The momentum and intensity of the first part was at times almost unbearably moving, goosebumps that felt like ripples, but of course it’s not all about the roar and bigness of the work. It indeed made our concert hall feel like a shoebox, but the opening of the work quickly dwindles to chamber-like textures, and these were handled with the utmost delicacy. You heard just about everything there was to hear. That’s to be expected, even demanded, of a recording that’s gone through postproduction and mastering, but to strike nearly perfect balances in a concert hall is magical.

As for the singers, Emma Bell is a terrifying force of sound. There are a few points in the first movement where the orchestra soars to full force and her soprano role must ride that swell, soar over it, and she did it with ease, and what sounded like a lot more to give. The impression was that she never really had to push her pedal to the floor, whereas the other female voices had some trouble, not with being heard, but with finding their place in the overall sound. There were a few less polished moments among a few of them.

As for the men, Barry Banks worked to be heard above the crowd here and there, but in Dr. Marianus’s moments that counted, he was spot on. Wu Bai-Yu-Hsi and Shenyang have obviously smaller roles, but were excellent. Shenyang was covered over in a few places, but he has a remarkable sound.

Mahler’s eighth is such a nontraditional symphony, and really, there’s very little about it that’s much like a symphony at all. Part I has its sonata-form structure, but the motifs and content introduced there have their counterparts, their completions in Part II. It’s a cantata, but a relaying of the final glorious, beautiful moving message of Faust as well.

However, the thing that’s so magical, so astounding about this work is that it really is actually… in some ways so compact. Perhaps I should say confined. It is a system, revolving around those certain ideas, be they musical motifs or the concept of the power of love, and to hear those things combined so thoroughly into such a monumental construction, played with such focus and passion and intensity, is an overwhelming experience. Words do not do it justice.

I’ll be honest in saying when I heard the NTSO’s Mahler 2 a few years back, I was delighted to have the chance to hear it, and while I was elated and impressed by the electrifying passion and intensity the orchestra had, I still found myself holding out for ‘next time’, needing another, better go at hearing it live. Tonight, though, with their reading of the really absurdly large eighth, I could not have anticipated how marvelously wonderful it was.

I’m exhausted.

And with that I complete the (canonical, single-digit) Mahler symphonies live. I’ve been able to hear a few of them multiple times, and there are still more coming up, but I must say… having saved the spectacular eighth to be the last in the set was something truly special, an event I will not soon forget, so thank you to everyone. It meant so much more to me than I expected it to, and I expected a lot.

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