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Mahler’s Symphony No. 8

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With its huge orchestral complement, eight vocal soloists, and massed choral forces spilling over the stage, Mahler’s mighty Eighth Symphony is trotted out only when a grand statement must be made. Apparently the eagerly awaited James Levine era at the Boston Symphony Orchestra demanded just such a noisy launch, and if nothing else the performance at Carnegie Hall made a big racket. I may be in a minority, but this behemoth strikes me as Mahler’s most ungainly and least persuasive symphonic work. When asked his opinion of it, Stravinsky once wondered if so much machinery was really needed just to prove that two and two equals four.

Needless to say, Levine had each element of this complex apparatus under control, and its heavy melodrama was milked to the max. If there ever was a Mahler score to suggest the sort of opera he might have written, this is it, and Levine is nothing if not an experienced opera conductor. Even at that, the whole first movement, the festive Latin hymn “Veni, creator spiritus,” sounded terribly blatty, even vulgar at times, while the second part, a setting of the final scene from Goethe’s Faust, lacked mystery and any real sense of inwardness. Worse, the orchestra didn’t seem to be at its best, content to batter the notes rather than make them sing. Perhaps Levine and the BSO can now forget about all this hoo-ha, clear the decks, and start making some real music.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 8
James Levine conducting.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra


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