Simon Rattle conducts Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”

18 Sep 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Rundfunkchor Berlin, Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin

  • Antonio Lotti
    Crucifixus in C minor for chorus of eight voices (5 min.)

    Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • Thomas Tallis
    “Spem in alium”, 40-part motet (9 min.)

    Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 8 “Symphony of a Thousand” (88 min.)

    Erika Sunnegårdh Soprano, Susan Bullock Soprano, Anna Prohaska Soprano, Lilli Paasikivi Soprano, Nathalie Stutzmann Contralto, Johan Botha Tenor, David Wilson-Johnson Baritone, John Relyea Baritone, MDR Rundfunkchor , Howard Arman Chorus Master, Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • free

    Sir Simon Rattle on Mahlers Symphony No. 8 (7 min.)

Even in Gustav Mahler’s time, the Eighth Symphony was called the Symphony of a Thousand. The title may seem sensational, but not inappropriate. For no less than eight vocal soloists, two large mixed choirs, a boys’ choir, a large symphony orchestra, a separate brass ensemble and an organ are required for the performance.

But its monumental grandness is not only due to its instrumental and vocal forces, but equally because of its global textual basis. Starting with a medieval Pentecost hymn, and culminating in the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust, the symphony draws together fundamental philosophical ideas of Western history. 

The premiere in 1910, performed before the cultural elite of the time – the audience included Siegfried Wagner, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Bruno Walter, Stefan Zweig and Thomas Mann – was the most triumphant success in the life of Gustav Mahler. And the composer himself felt the symphony to be “the grandest thing I have done yet”, as he wrote to the conductor Willem Mengelberg. 

It was also Mengelberg who conducted the first performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker in May 1912. After another in 1928, it took almost half a century before the orchestra, under the direction of Seiji Ozawa, turned to the work again in 1975. Following another three performances, this is therefore only the fifth with the Berliner Philharmoniker since the Second World War – and the first with Sir Simon Rattle as conductor. 

As an introduction to the symphony, the Rundfunkchor Berlin sings two original Latin motets, including the legendary, 40-voice Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis.

Resounding Universe

Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”

“Forewords” to the Eighth

When Simon Rattle prefaced his interpretation of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with Henry Purcell’s Funeral Music, he was seeking programmatic unity through the idea of the funeral march. Introducing this performance of the Eighth Symphony are liturgical settings from the Renaissance and Baroque, polychoral works of the old masters that prefigure the conception of a “resounding universe” by which Mahler described his newly completed Eighth. The ultimate example of this style is the Tudor court organist Thomas Tallis’s 40-part motet Spem in alium. An essential feature of this composition’s structure is the alternation between imitative passages involving only a few voices and huge tutti entries with powerful chords.

The idea of a polyphonic overlay of vocal lines also inspired Antonio Lotti 150 years later. Born in Hanover, he lived most of his life in Venice, where he served as organist and later maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s. Among his compositions for the basilica are a number of highly expressive settings of the Crucifixus for 5-10 voices, the manuscripts of which are still widely scattered in libraries in Europe and the US. In place of the almost cosmically revolving consonances in the Tallis motet, Lotti’s eight-part Crucifixus features the expressive dissonances of the Italian Baroque known as durezze.

“My most important work” – Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony

“It would be absurd if my most important work happened to be the easiest to understand,” wrote Mahler to his wife Alma in September 1909 after playing portions of his Eighth Symphony to his Dutch friends Willem Mengelberg and Alphons Diepenbrock. “It’s funny: the work always makes the same, typically powerful impression.” These were harbingers of the overpowering effect the Eighth would make at its world premiere in Munich’s Neue Festhalle on 12 September 1910. All the more rapid was the decline of its reputation in later decades when Theodor W. Adorno’s polemical phrase “giant symbolic shell” made the rounds. It was not the only objection raised against this exceptional work. One saw in its affirmative tone a retreat from the scepticism of the three preceding instrumental symphonies. Mahler biographer Jens Malte Fischer has declared: “The Eighth was reproached for having committed itself too wholeheartedly to the late 19th-century’s appetite for the value-producing, value-celebrating Gesamtkunstwerk in an age of the value vacuum.”

The composer would have been baffled by such reservations, convinced as he was that the Eighth was a gift from above. In a letter to Alma he recalled beginning work on the symphony in June 1906: “Four years ago, on the first day of the holidays, I went up to my hut at Maiernigg with the firm resolution of idling the holiday away ... and recruiting my strength. On the threshold of my old workshop the spiritus creator took hold of me and shook me and drove me on for the next eight weeks until my greatest work was done.”

Mahler himself helped weave the legend of that euphoric summer of 1906. He reportedly found the Pentecost hymn Veni Creator Spiritus by the 9th-century Mainz archbishop Hrabanus Maurus in a “damned old hymnbook”. When the “creative spirit took hold” of him, there was no room for textual questions. Only later did he discover that two and a half strophes of the original were missing from his popular version of the hymn, but, miraculously, they fit seamlessly into the sketches he had drafted without knowledge of this additional text. So it was that one thing after another contributed to the notion that this work in its entirety was meant to be.

Veni Creator Spiritus

Mahler set the Whitsun hymn as a powerful symphony cantata for double chorus, boys choir and orchestra, tonally centred in the typical hymn key of E flat major and organized in a taut sonata form, whose themes recur and are transformed in the symphony’s second part. In the middle of the first part’s development, a powerful new theme is introduced that symbolizes the text “Accende lumen sensibus”: “Illuminate our senses”. It is this theme that begins Part II, now in E flat minor and moved down to the basses in muffled pizzicato to depict Goethe’s “mountain gorge”. In the course of the second part, the theme recovers its euphoric power as a symbol of creativity itself, which Mahler in this symphony connects with the theme of Eros, redeeming love. At the end of the work, the Eternal Feminine that “leads us on high” and the descending Creative Spirit come together in a mystical union where the two forces are conformed and fused.

Scene from Faust

“We experience the truth of life without knowing how.” In this succinct phrase Goethe encapsulates what he is trying to say with the conclusion of Faust II. Mahler, too, was inspired by this idea when he set Goethe’s verses: Everything is revealed here through music – the ascent to the heights and disclosure of life’s ultimate truths – as the composer’s reply to the creativity kindled by the spirit in the first part. “Everything subjectively tragic is abolished in the Eighth,” he told Mengelberg. “Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. These are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.”

The Eighth is also monumental in the sense that Mahler needed every musical element – from the six flutes to the elaborate choral sub-division – in order to particularize the various stages of Goethe’s ascent to the heights and, at the end, to reintegrate them in a grand conclusion. The scene begins with a long orchestral prelude, evoking the mountain gorge whose caves are home to the Anchorites, hermits of the early Church. From deep pizzicato basses in dark E flat minor, the view opens upward to where a keening woodwind theme floats in the strings’ tremolo clouds. This is the dotted-rhythm motif that informs all the love themes of this vast scene. Thus the orchestral prelude, both in its motifs and its strict counterpoint, prepares the “great liturgy”, as the final scene has been described.

For the Anchorites’ entry Mahler again takes up the double-chorus principle he uses in Part I, here as a division into tenors and basses singing, extremely softly and in alternation, “Waldung, sie schwankt heran” (“Wavering woods”) on clipped breathlike syllables – a visionary modern choral technique. The next big choral section leads us to “higher spheres”. It is the Chorus of Angels “carrying the immortal part of Faust”. Their verse “Gerettet ist das edle Glied der Geisterwelt vom Bösen” (“Now that precious part of our spirit world is saved from evil”) is sung at first by both women’s choirs together. Above them is the Chorus of Blessed Boys “circling round the highest peak”. Later the women’s voices are sub-divided: Mahler gives the Chorus of Younger Angels to the “lighter voices” of the first choir, that of the “More Perfect Angels” to the second women’s choir, further divided into sections. Doctor Marianus’s rapturous solo with chorus follows. Then the Boys intone “Er überwächst uns schon” (“He is already surpassing us”), the choral sound growing ever more ecstatic and splendid until it culminates in “Jungfrau, Mutter, Königin, Göttin, bleibe gnädig!” (“Virgin, Mother, Queen, Goddess, keep us in thy favour”). Following a numinous orchestral interlude the nearly hour-long movement reaches its final consummation in the “Chorus mysticus”: “All that passes away is only a likeness”. The chorus’s ppp E flat major entry inevitably recalls “Auferstehen” (“Rise again”) at the end of the “Resurrection” Symphony. In a similarly broad, sweeping intensification – with the euphoric words “Blicket auf”, exhorting the penitents to “gaze aloft” at “her” saving glance, the work moves to its climax: “Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan” (“The Eternal-Feminine leads us on high”). In the orchestral conclusion, the mighty “Veni creator” motif chimes in tellingly, welding the entire symphony into a gigantic unity.

Karl Böhmer

Translation: Richard Evidon

Johan Botha, was born in South Africa, studied in Pretoria and made his debut as Max in Weber’s Freischütz at the Staatstheater Roodeport. In 1993 he made his international breakthrough with his debut as Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly) at the Opéra Bastille. Since then he has performed at the state opera houses in Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg and Munich, at the Gran Teatro del Liceu in Barcelona, ​​London’s Royal Opera House Covent Garden, La Scala Milan, the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, Los Angeles and San Francisco Opera, Sydney Opera House and at the Salzburg Festival. He has had close ties with the Vienna State Opera since 1996, and he regularly performs at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. His stage repertoire includes such roles as Florestan (Fidelio), Radamès (Aida), Cavaradossi (Tosca), Erik (Der fliegende Holländer), Lohengrin, Stolzing (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), Parsifal and the role of the Emperor (Die Frau ohne Schatten). In 2010, the tenor made his debut as Siegmund (Die Walküre) at the Bayreuth Festival. The artist, who was awarded the title “Österreichischer Kammersänger” in 2003, also performs with leading symphony orchestras all over the world with conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Semyon Bychkov and Antonio Pappano. Johan Botha first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1994 under the direction of Claudio Abbado.

Susan Bullock began her career at Opera North and English National Opera in London, where she acquired a broad spectrum of lyric to dramatic roles, making a sensation in particular as Isolde. She is now considered one of the world’s leading interpreters of Wagner and Strauss, and was honoured with the Royal Philharmonic Society Award in 2009 for her portrayal of Strauss’ Salome at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Her multifaceted operatic and concert repertoire also includes roles in works by Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Janáček, Schoenberg, Berg, Schreker, Bloch, Britten, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Tippett, Henze and Górecki. Susan Bullock has appeared in the music capitals of Europe, North and South America, Asia, and at major festivals such as Glyndebourne and Spoleto. In German-speaking countries, she is regularly to be heard in the great opera houses in Dresden, Munich, Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Vienna. Susan Bullock has worked together with conductors including Semyon Bychkov, Daniel Harding, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Edo de Waart; the pianist Malcolm Martineau frequently accompanies her at her recitals. She made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in late November 2006 under the direction of Mark Elder as Gertrud in concert performances of Humperdinck’s opera Hänsel und Gretel.

The Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill studied in Glasgow, Toronto and London and was joint winner of the Kathleen Ferrier Award in 2002. Her repertoire focuses on works from the 19th and 20th century. She is in particular demand as a concert singer, in which capacity she has appeared with the London Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and, more especially, the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Among the conductors with whom she has worked to date are Marc Albrecht, Sir Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink, James Levine, Kurt Masur and Donald Runnicles. At the 2006 Aldeburgh Festival she sang a selection of Mahler’s Wunderhorn Lieder with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Oliver Knussen. Her operatic roles include Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia for Scottish Opera and Suzuki in Madama Butterfly for English National Opera. Karen Cargill gave her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in May 2008 as Waltraute in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

The MDR Rundfunkchor (Central German Radio Chorus) is ARD’s largest professional concert choir looking back on a long and rich tradition. It became affiliated to Central German Radio in Leipzig in 1946. Its musical profile was shaped in no small way by its first post-war music director, Herbert Kegel, under whose guidance the choir was soon being ranked among the finest in Europe, a position that it has maintained to the present day thanks to the work of its later chorus masters, Dietrich Knothe and Horst Neumann, its chorus director Gert Frischmuth and its principal conductors, Wolf-Dieter Hauschild and Jörg-Peter Weigle. In 1998 a new music director was appointed in the person of Howard Arman. The choir’s repertory includes a cappella pieces and symphonic works from almost one thousand years of musical history. The choir has also given the world premieres and local premieres of countless works, adding to its reputation as a specialist in contemporary music. Among the conductors who have worked with the ensemble are Herbert von Karajan, Kurt Masur, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Claudio Abbado, Sir Simon Rattle, Seiji Ozawa and Bernard Haitink. Its wide-ranging activities are documented by almost two hundred recordings on LP and CD. Tours have taken the Central German Radio Chorus to leading music centres and festivals throughout Europe and also as far afield as Israel and Japan. The choir appears on a regular basis with the MDR Sinfonieorchester (Central German Radio Symphony Orchestra) and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Since 2004/05 the choir has invited audiences to St Peter’s Church in Leipzig for a voyage of discovery of the vocal repertory. These concerts are held three times a year under the title Nachtgesang. The MDR Rundfunkchor first performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker in two concerts in mid-September 1990; most recently, they appeared with the orchestra in performances of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Requiem für einen jungen Dichter in April 2009, conducted by Peter Eötvös.

Anna Prohaska began her vocal studies with Eberhard Kloke when she was 14 years old. She later studied at the Academy of Music Hanns Eisler in Berlin with Norma Sharp and Brenda Mitchell as well as attending Wolfram Rieger’s Lieder interpretation classes. She also attended the Académie Européenne de Musique in Aix-en-Provence in 2003 and the International Handel Academy in Karlsruhe in 2006. Anna Prohaska’s stage repertoire includes roles in works by Handel, Gluck, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Debussy, Strauss and Britten: she was to be heard in the roles of Fora in The Turn of the Screw and Harry in Albert Herring at the Komische Oper in Berlin. She has also performed the roles of Tebaldo (Don Carlo), Papagena (Die Zauberflöte), Barbarina (Le nozze di Figaro) und Mercédès (Carmen) at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, where she has been a member of the ensemble since the 2006/07 season. Furthermore, she has appeared in theatres in Aachen and Paris as well as at the Lucerne and Salzburg festivals. Since making her debut in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation in June 2007, she has appeared regularly with the orchestra and its chamber music ensembles, most recently in the middle of May this year, when she sang works of Mozart and Berg under the direction of Claudio Abbado.

John Relyea studied singing with, among others, his father, the Canadian bass-baritone Gary Relyea, and later with Jerome Hines. In 1996 he made his debut at the opera in San Francisco as Colline in La Bohème. John Relyea subsequently sang at the festival in Santa Fe and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 1999 he made his European debut at the Edinburgh Festival in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia; this was followed by performances at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London and at the Paris Opéra. Since then, John Relyea has also performed in other leading theatres such as the state opera houses in Munich and Vienna, the Mariinsky Theatre St. Petersburg , Seattle Opera and San Francisco Opera. The artist’s repertoire includes such diverse roles as Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro), Escamillo (Carmen), King Marke (Tristan und Isolde), Nick Shadow (The Rake’s Progress) and the title role in George Enescu’s Oedipe. On the concert platform, John Relyea works with major international orchestras as well as leading conductors, and he is to be heard – not least also in lieder recitals – at festivals such as those in Salzburg, Edinburgh, Lucerne, Tanglewood and at the BBC Proms. He has appeared several times with the Berliner Philharmoniker since the opening concert of the 2004/2005 season, most recently on three evenings at the end of 2005 with works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin, founded in 1925, produced great musical moments of the 1920s and 30s under the direction of conductors such as George Szell, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber. After the Second World War, the choir and its principal conductor Helmut Koch made the oratorios of Handel internationally known in their original versions. Dietrich Knothe (1982 – 1993) formed the choir into a precision instrument for the most difficult of works; Robin Gritton (1994 – 2001) both enriched and refined the ensemble’s palette of colours. Since 2001, the Rundfunkchor Berlin has been led by Simon Halsey, who places particular emphasis on stylistic and linguistic perfection, resulting in lively and exciting performances of works from all periods and in all styles. Their work together is documented by a busy recording schedule; recently their CD of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’amour de loin with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by Kent Nagano won the 2010 Grammy Award for best opera recording. Simon Halsey, who was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” (Cross of the Order of Merit) in January 2011, has also initiated many of the choir’s education and outreach projects, the interdisciplinary event series Broadening the Scope of Choral Music as well as the annual Sing-along Concert. The choir has been a partner of leading orchestras and conductors all over the world, including long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Rundfunkchor Berlin last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2011 under the direction of Vladimir Jurowski in works by Igor Stravinky and Gustav Mahler.

The Staats- und Domchor Berlin is one of the most famous boys’ choirs in Germany, with a history that goes back to the 16th century. As the then-called “Königlicher Domchor”, their first golden age was in the 19th century under the direction of conductors such as Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Otto Nicolai and Heinrich August Neidhardt. In 1923 the ensemble was renamed the “Staats- und Domchor Berlin” and became affiliated with the Hochschule für Musik. Today, the choir provides music for services at the Cathedral of Berlin and also for state occasions. In addition, it participates in performances in opera houses and concert venues in Berlin, and holds its own concerts with a repertoire which includes the great works of the Western choral tradition from the Middle Ages to modern times. Since 2002, the choir has been led by Kai-Uwe Jirka, Professor of choral conducting at the Berlin University of the Arts. In addition to many other awards, the Staats- und Domchor Berlin won the European Youth Choir Culture Prize in 2002. Tours have taken the choir to other European countries, Asia, the USA and Israel. The Staats- und Domchor’s most recent appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker was in February 2011 in performances of Mahler’s Third Symphony, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

Paris-born Nathalie Stutzmann began her vocal training with her mother, and later studied singing with Hans Hotter at the École d’Art Lyrique de l’Opéra de Paris. The alto, who also studied piano, bassoon and conducting, has developed a broad repertoire from Baroque to 20th century works. Initially making a name for herself particularly as an interpreter of Lieder, Nathalie Stutzmann has also gone on to work on the concert stage with conductors such as Riccardo Chailly, Seiji Ozawa, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Simon Rattle and Christoph von Dohnányi, performing with, for example, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the Boston and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestras, the Staatskapelle Dresden and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. The artist, who has been awarded the title “Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres”, also teaches regularly in masterclasses. In addition, she leads the ensemble Orfeo 55, which she herself formed in 2009. Following her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 2007 in a series of concerts of Claude Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, she most recently performed here last February again under the direction of Simon Rattle in Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony.

Erika Sunnegårdh comes from a Swedish-American family. She was trained at, among others, the Manhattan School of Music, the Tanglewood Music Center and at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies in Aldeburgh. She completed her master’s degree at the Aaron Copland School of Music of Queens College. The singer first made her name notably with contemporary chamber music and lieder repertoire; in the world of opera, she made her international breakthrough as Turandot at Malmö Opera in 2004. Erika Sunnegårdh has been particularly successful in roles of stage works by Beethoven (Leonore), Puccini (Tosca, Turandot) and Strauss (Chrysotemis, Salome), but also Wagner and Verdi roles (Senta, Helmwige, Gerhilde, Lady Macbeth), performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Welsh National Opera, the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, ​​the state opera houses in Vienna and Munich, the Oper Frankfurt and the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Again in Malmö in 2008, she appeared as Paulina in the premiere of Jonas Forssell’s Death and the Maiden. Erika Sunnegårdh has also performed at the festivals in Aix-en-Provence and Salzburg. As a soloist with leading orchestras throughout the world, she has worked with conductors such as Semyon Bychkov, Myung-Wun Chung, Gustavo Dudamel, Kirill Petrenko, Sir Simon Rattle and Mario Venzago; these concerts will be the soprano’s first with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

The British baritone David Wilson-Johnson studied Modern Languages at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge and singing at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Over a career already spanning forty years he has been a guest of the major opera houses, orchestras and festivals worldwide. His opera and concert repertoire ranges from early music (eg. Rameau’s Les Boréades) to works of the Classical and Romantic periods and compositions by Messiaen, Henze and Maxwell Davies. He has sung under many distinguished conductors including Pierre Boulez, Frans Brüggen, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Sir Charles Mackerras, Zubin Mehta and Sir Simon Rattle. David Wilson-Johnson taught for over 20 years at the Summer School Ferrandou in the Dordogne. He now teaches at the Amsterdam Sweelinck Conservatorium. After his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in November 2006 he last appeared with the orchestra in December that same year in the education project featuring Stravinsky’s Les Noces under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

musikfest berlinIn co-operation with the musikfest berlin 11



Deutsche GrammophonAnna Prohaska and Nathalie Stutzmann appear by courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon.

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