After ten years as chief conductor of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Dutch National Opera, Marc Albrecht will leave both posts halfway through 2020. In the meantime, Amsterdam audiences can look forward to another year of performances with his firm imprint, such as this high-octane Symphony no. 8 in E flat major by Gustav Mahler. Mahler called this symphony, in which a colossal choir and eight soloists are the star instruments, his “Mass”. The way he conceived it invokes the image of a prophet receiving divine texts. He is reported to have said: “…it was a vision that struck me like lightning. The whole immediately stood before my eyes: I had only to write it down, as if it had been dictated to me.”

Marc Albrecht © Marco Borggreve
Marc Albrecht
© Marco Borggreve

Combining two outwardly unrelated sources, Mahler links their ideas with musical leitmotifs into a cogent whole to illuminate the transformative power of divine love. In Part One he sets a 9th-century Pentecost hymn, Veni, creator spiritus. Part Two is a fairly faithful adaptation of the final scene from Goethe’s Faust, Part Two, published in 1832. In this scene Faust’s soul is saved after he decides to devote his life to others. Leaving his earthly remains behind, he is granted grace and spiritual rebirth through the intercession of a number of female figures, including Gretchen, the woman he wrongs in Faust, Part One. They represent the Eternal Feminine, a force without which salvation is impossible. 

Mahler’s most conceptually lofty, labour-intensive and ambitious symphony is also his most accessible. Chances are that anyone encountering the composer for the first time through his Eighth Symphony will be effortlessly transported into his universe. You don’t have to understand Goethe’s complex text or Mahler’s individual belief system to experience them intuitively through the music, and live performances of Mahler 8 don’t get much better than this one by the Netherlands Philharmonic.

Albrecht’s vision of the work was highly dramatic, a relentless, sweat-and-sinew struggle that only escapes its earthly shackles in the shattering finale. The opening bars ushered in the first main theme, Veni, creator, with huge momentum. The second main theme, Accende lumen, erupted with even greater urgency. It is undeniably exciting to hear a 230-strong chorus, an amalgam of three adult choirs and two children’s choirs, maximising their decibel potential. Those healthy, young-sounding sopranos rang out splendidly. But just as impressive was the choir’s crisp articulation of the text. The orchestra followed Albrecht’s impassioned lead, turning in an intensely glowing performance. A few intonation slips here and there could not detract from the fierce majesty of their sound, such as in the exploding bells at the start of Infirma nostri corporis. The high calibre of the soloists was evident from their first entrance on Imple superna, crowned by first soprano Camilla Nylund’s golden high Cs. Altos Janina Baechle and Helena Rasker and tenor Klaus Florian Vogt provided a molten centre to the solo ensembles.

Everyone got even better in the scene from Faust, which is the closest Mahler ever came to writing an opera. The orchestral interlude that opens Part Two should evoke a wild landscape that, at any moment, could rip open to reveal a portal to the otherworldly. It had a somewhat nervous start with unsettled woodwind solos, but an atmosphere of expectant mystery had been set by the time their theme was picked up by the whole orchestra and handed back. After the whispered echoes of the male hermit chorus, baritone Tommi Hakala’s Ewiger Wonnebrand shone with lyrical beauty. A last-minute replacement for Ain Anger, bass-baritone Shenyang displayed a lustrous upper range in his tortured solo.

In the concatenation of choruses of various gradations of angels, both chorus and orchestra kept opening up new colours. Harps and strings glittered as they announced the Mater Gloriosa, the Holy Virgin, for now silent, following a transcendent tenor solo by Vogt. His pure, masterfully sustained lines made his Doctor Marianus an appearance to remember. Nylund was as radiant as in the first part, riding the ocean of sound around her with ease. Her full sound contrasted nicely with second soprano Ailish Tynan’s focused steel. The orchestra sparkled in the transparent accompaniment to the penitent women’s solos and trio, in which Nylund was flanked by Baechle’s deep, earthy tones and Rasker’s expressive allure. 

The finale was both a perfect take-off and landing to wherever Mahler meant to take us. A luminous Regula Mühlemann sang the brief but crucial role of the Mater Gloriosa. Vogt capped his last solo with a beautiful high B flat followed by an exquisite diminuendo. The final ensemble, the Chorus Mysticus was, as it should be, almost too much. Too achingly soft, too magnificently loud, too much to take in all at once, but, at the same time, perfectly lucid.