Tanglewood 75 - From the Audio Archives: Day 44


Mahler: Symphony No. 8 & VarÈse: AmÉriques
DURATION: 105:85
Koussevitzky Music Shed, July 8, 2005 (Mahler)
Koussevitzky Music Shed, July 17, 2005 (Varèse)

Mahler: Symphony No. 8
Boston Symphony Orchestra

James Levine, conductor
Deborah Voigt, soprano - Una poenitenium
Heidi Grant Murphy, soprano - Mater gloriosa
Susan Neves, soprano - Magna peccarix
Yvonne Naëf, mezzo-soprano - Mulier samaritana
Jane Henschel, mezzo-soprano - Maria aegyptiaca
Johan Botha, tenor - Doctor Marianus
John Relyea, bass-baritone - Pater profundus
Eike Wilhm Schulte, baritone - Pater ecstaticus
Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, conductor
American Boychoir, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, conductor
John Finney, organ

Varèse: Amériques
Boston Symphony Orchestra

James Levine, conductor

Release: 08/02/2012



Background on the Music

Mahler: Symphony No. 8
Goethe's all-inclusive poetic drama Faust interested Berlioz and Mahler for different reasons. Berlioz, whose La Damnation de Faust was yesterday's stream, was attracted to what is visual, narrative, dramatic, pathetic, and emotional in Part I of Goethe's play. Mahler, on the other hand, was drawn to the philosophical dimension of the play and in particular to the allegory of redemption in Part II.

By the time of his Second Symphony, Mahler included a vocal and choral dimension which appears in the Third as well; the Fourth Symphony concludes with a solo soprano voice. The Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh are purely instrumental, but the Eighth calls for adult and children's choruses, and eight big-league vocal soloists. Publicity dubbed it the "Symphony of a Thousand," and when Mahler conducted the first performance in 1910, he did indeed have more than a thousand performers at his disposal. The premiere was triumphant. Just eight months later, Mahler died at the age of 50, and his last works were premiered posthumously.

The Eighth Symphony is in two vast movements. The first is a setting of a Latin hymn from the 9th century, Veni creator spiritus.The energy of the music is unflagging, and the energies of the performers must match it. The second is a more varied setting of the closing pages of Goethe's Faust in which both Faust and Gretchen (Marguerite) find redemption; here what is important is a sense of pace, delight in variety, and an inexorable but not vulgar building to the climax.

The symphony reached America in 1916, when the conductor was Leopold Stokowski, who had been present at the premiere. The Boston Symphony was slow to take it up. Seiji Ozawa led the orchestra's first performance at Tanglewood in 1972, returning to the work in 1980 in Symphony Hall and in Carnegie Hall, as well as in the summer of 1981 at Tanglewood.

James Levine chose it for his inaugural concert as music director in Symphony Hall in 2004, and repeated it the following summer for his first Tanglewood concert as music director - which was also his first Tanglewood concert since his only previous appearance there with the BSO in 1972. This download is important because RCA Victor never completed Levine's commercially recorded Mahler cycle; it is missing the Second and the Eighth, although a live performance of the Second has made its way onto CD. Although there has been no available recording of Levine conducting the Eighth, it has been in his repertory since early in his career, and the performance preserved here is revelatory. It has all the power and drama one would expect, but no less remarkable is Levine's patience and infinite attention to meaningful detail in the many slower and quieter sections, and the chamber-music clarity he brings to even the most massive climaxes. About the only clear point of superiority in the Symphony Hall performance was the sonority of the magnificent organ, which had been refurbished in time for that season's opening.

The Tanglewood performance features a cast somewhat different from that of the inaugural gala; Levine had previously worked with all of the singers at the Metropolitan Opera. Susan Neves succeeded Jane Eaglen as Soprano I/Magna Peccatrix. Although Neves has successfully performed most of the major Verdi and Wagner soprano roles in Europe, at the Met she has mostly served as a cover artist, appearing onstage in supporting roles like the Overseer in Strauss's Elektra, a part she sang 17 times. In 2003, however, she stepped at the last minute into the killer role of Abigaille in Verdi's Nabucco in a broadcast performance that won her many admirers. This Mahler Eighth was her only performance with the Boston Symphony to date.

At Tanglewood, Deborah Voigt succeeded Hei-Kyung Hong as Soprano II/una poenitentium. Voigt, of course, has been a leading soprano at the Met since 1991, and she has appeared in a number of performances with the BSO since making her debut in that same year in a work that has not figured often in her subsequent career, the Mozart Requiem. The following year she replaced Jessye Norman in the Verdi Requiem at the last moment, and she has since appeared with the orchestra in the title role of Strauss's Salome with Ozawa, and in Beethoven's concert aria "Ah! perfido" and Schoenberg's Erwartung under Levine.

Heidi Grant Murphy (Soprano III/Mater gloriosa) has had twelve engagements with the BSO, many of them in Mahler (the Second and Fourth symphonies as well as the Eighth), as well as the Mozart and Brahms Requiems, Verdi's Falstaff,and Mozart's Don Giovanni (Zerlina). At the Met, where she has sung more than 200 performances since 1991, she graduated from supporting parts in Mozart operas to leading roles like Susanna and Pamina in the same operas.

The late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was supposed to take over the Alto I/Mulier Samaritana role from Stephanie Blythe, but she was ill. So Yvonne Naef moved up from Alto II/Maria Aegyptiaca and Jane Henschel came in to sing Alto II/Maria Aegyptiaca. Naef made her BSO debut at Tanglewood in 2003 in the Verdi Requiem, and has since sung Marguerite in La Damnation de Faust with Levine and the BSO in Boston, New York, and on tour in Europe; she also sang Cassandra in Levine's Boston performances of Berlioz's Les Troyens. Jane Henschel made her BSO debut in 1995 as Baba the Turk in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress and has appeared with the orchestra at Tanglewood in Strauss's Salome and Falla's La vida breve.

The South African heroic tenor Johan Botha sang Doctor Marianus. Botha has been a most valuable performer at Tanglewood, taking the title role in Levine's concert performance of Verdi's Don Carlo, Walther von Stoltzing in Levine's concert performance of Act III of Wagner's Die Meistersinger,and Waldemar in Schoenberg's Gurrelieder  both in Boston and at Tanglewood (the Tanglewood performance is a later download in this series). In Boston he also sang Florestan in Levine's concert performances of Beethoven's Fidelio. The tenor part in the Mahler Eighth is quite strenuous, but Botha takes it in stride, delivering even the most demanding passages with unflustered tone and easy command.

The German baritone Eike Wilm Schulte made his BSO debut as Pater ecstaticus in this work in the fall performances and then reprised the role at Tanglewood. He has also sung the bass part in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with the BSO in Paris and in Boston, and joined Botha in the Tanglewood performance of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. At the Met, often with Levine, he sang 65 performances between 1991 and 2008 in operas by Mozart, Strauss, and Wagner.

Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea (Pater profoundus), once a grunge-band guitarist, made his Tanglewood debut in 1999 in Mozart's C minor Mass. He has since sung with the BSO at Tanglewood in the Mozart Requiem, the Verdi Requiem, and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He sang in Levine's performances of Mahler's Eighth Symphony both in Boston and Tanglewood, and in Boston he also sang in Walton's Belshazzar's Feast. He made his debut at the Met in 2000 and has since sung more than 170 performances in a diverse repertory ranging from Handel through bel canto operas to Puccini and Wagner; among his roles is Méphistophélès in Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust in Robert LePage's production for the Met.

Varese: Amériques
As an encore, we offer a Levine-led BSO performance of Amériques by the French-American avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse. This was the BSO's first performance of this signature work of modernism, composed 84 years (!) before.

Born in Paris, brought up in the provinces, and educated in Italy and at the Paris Conservatory, where he studied with Albert Roussel and the organist-composer Charles-Marie Widor, Varèse moved as much in literary and artistic circles as in the musical world, where he failed to make much headway. In 1915 he moved to America, where he lived for most of the remaining 50 years of his life.

His catalogue of works is very small - 16 or 17 pieces. But their influence on other composers was great, even though for years his music was considered eccentric at best and crazy at worst. Amériques was the first work he composed in this country, and apart from one art song from his French period, it is the earliest of his surviving works; Varèse finished it in 1921, and Leopold Stokowski conducted the premiere five years (!) later. The composer revised the work and cut back the orchestration in 1929. The piece represents a tribute to his new country - the sirens in the score quickly became notorious. Varèse himself wrote, "[America] meant the unknown. And in this symbolical sense - new worlds on this planet, in outer space, and in the minds of men - I gave the title signifying 'Americas' to the first work I wrote in America."

In another sense, however, Varèse might just as well have called the work "Russiques" because the influence of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is so pervasive and so obvious. It is certainly a sonic spectacular - the huge percussion battery requires 9 players - and in recent years has become a popular showpiece for virtuoso orchestras (and virtuoso conductors). James Levine had the delightful idea of programming it alongside George Gershwin's An American in Paris in Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood. Under his direction, the BSO played the blazes out of both pieces.

Richard Dyer


Reviews for Mahler: Symphony No. 8
"Levine launched into the score with decisively brisk tempos - no lingering on that opening 'Veni, creator spritus,' just a grand choral statement accompanied by a remarkably taut orchestral sound. There would, of course, be ample time to temper those qualities, both by magnifying them, as in the over-the-top conclusion of Part 1, and by pulling back to create transparent, heavenly pianissimos, as in the most compelling moments in Part 2. Among the vocal soloists, Heidi Grant Murphy's exquisitely floated rendering of the 'Mater gloriosa' lines, sung from a perch above the orchestra, proved the most memorable. But the other singers . . .all made important contributions, as did the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the American Boychoir. But the real thrill here was the Boston Symphony's rich sound and sheer virtuosity. It has been many years since this orchestra sounded so energized."
-Allan Kozinn, International Herald Tribune

"And the orchestra - what a sound!  Strings at once creamy and steely in their delicious presence, brass as brilliant and profound as the voice of God, plangent woodwinds, a vast percussion battery, piano, organ and four harps, all ready to turn on a dime under Levine's minimal but pointed direction. From the most poignant chamber music, punctuated by a feather-light brush of the crash cymbals to the full ensemble's apocalyptic glorious chaos, the Tanglewood audience got the full measure of the Boston Symphony on Friday evening, and witnessed the beginning of an era."
-Clifton J. Noble, Springfield Republican

"Levine made do with 361 musicians, but they produced a mighty and thrilling noise. The first movement of the symphony is a setting of an ancient Latin hymn. The music is so tightly wound that it explodes - it lasts 25 minutes or so, but it passes like a flash of lightning, a noisy one. Levine and his orchestra, the soloists, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the American Boychoir fired it like a cannon - it was noisy and exciting, it was hectic, and the temptation to scream offered by the vocal writing was not avoided. The longer second movement, a setting of the final cosmic scene of Goethe's Faust drama is sublime in subject and sound. Levine chose this work to open his tenure in Symphony Hall last fall and later took it to New York's Carnegie Hall. That accumulated experience led to an even better performance of the second half last night; it had detail and momentum, rising to passages of sustained spiritual ecstasy. Levine's building to the final climax was masterly in every way. Four of the eight soloists were different this time, and if they were a slightly less starry crew, they sang to better effect . . . The loudest cheers went to Levine, who deserved them because he was master of all he surveyed, especially in the second part. Thanks to him, it was Mahler who left the deepest impression.
-Richard Dyer, Boston Globe

Reviews for Varese: Amériques
"This is crazy music. But with its fire siren going off at all hours, its machine-age antics and its colliding blocks and planes of sound, it exerts a weird fascination . . ."
-Andrew L. Pincus, Berkshire Eagle

"Truthfully, it was Edgard Varèse's Amériques that stole the show, the French composer's percussive, kaleidoscopic soundscape creating a visceral reaction akin to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. In some inspired programming, Amériques was paired with Gershwin's An American in Paris, which was composed at roughly the same time but in a completely different sound world. Or is it?  Hearing the work through fresh ears and Levine's conducting, its inner voices and highly rhythmic nature became clear. It was the kind of musical discovery that distinguished the entire Tanglewood weekend."
-Matthew Erikson, Hartford Courant