Mahler’s Eighth Symphony has carried the nickname “Symphony of a Thousand” (in spite of Mahler’s disapproval) ever since the 1,028-member premiere performance in Munich on 12th September 1910. Only 464 musicians participated in this performance of the Eighth, but the symphony’s nickname felt just as apt upon seeing nearly every inch of space on the stage of Atlanta’s Symphony Hall filled. Managing four choirs, eight vocal soloists, and a full-size Romantic orchestra is no easy feat, and music director Robert Spano marshaled the vast forces with sensitive balance in many moments. But the difficulty of achieving a proper blend amidst the thick timbral texture prevented the performance from reaching the transcendence intoned in the lyrics of the closing minutes.

Robert Spano
© Angela Morriss

The symphony’s first part, Veni creator spiritus, immediately brings in all nearly all the forces on stage at the very beginning in a thundering fortissimo. The highly polyphonic movement is missing most of Mahler’s typical symphonic devices, like references to Viennese folk dances, instead resembling a Baroque oratorio more than a Romantic symphony. As such, clarity of voices and texture is paramount to a successful performance of the movement. Although the orchestra played in lockstep with the choirs and soloists, uniformity of articulation and dynamic phrasing lacked, rendering several parts of the movement, perhaps most notably Imple superna gratia, muffled and slightly disjointed. Nonetheless, the exuberant momentum of the music was preserved, climaxing in the offstage brass entry finishing the first part of the symphony in a jubilant coda. Four trumpets and three trombones played from the loge, facing the stage and visible to most of the audience, such that the added punch to the texture was felt both audibly and visibly.

The symphony’s second and last part uses the final scene from Goethe’s Faust as its setting. On first glance, it may seem like an unrelated departure from the spiritual hymn of the first part, but the scene actually chronicles the journey of Faust’s soul into heaven, continuing with the religious, transcendental themes of the first part. The longest orchestral passage in the symphony opens this part, and excepting the Chorus Mysticus at the close of the symphony, this was likely the highlight of the evening. Muted dynamics and chamber-like instrument groups dominated the musical texture, giving the music a more familiar Mahlerian feel. Spano managed the balance delicately, ensuring that the texture was not too thick or muffled at any time. The entrance of the choirs, hushed and sibilant in contrast to the first part, added color to the sound palette without compromising the clarity, an impressive feat. Morris Robinson, as Pater Ecstaticus, shone with his deep, gravelly voice resonating across the hall. As the movement progressed, the texture became muddied at times, and Spano appeared to be focusing more on timekeeping (a nontrivial challenge in itself) than balance, compromising the clarity of the sound. The vocal soloists, representing various characters in Goethe’s play, all sang with power and inflection but were sometimes competing with the orchestra and choirs.

The dynamics went to an ethereal hush as the Chorus Mysticus began. Here the transparency of texture returned again, ever so important in this final part of both Faust and the symphony, the lyrics describing both impermanence and eternality. The offstage brass returned for a triumphant peroration, bringing a rousing finish to the evening’s performance, impassioned and heartfelt in spite of timbral imbalance throughout both parts.