Sacred monster. This year’s Proms season began with the Mahler Eighth, which is like having the Queen Mary tootle up the Thames for the first day of Henley. (To let us down gently, we get Die Meistersinger tomorrow night and Simon Boccanegra the night after that – no musician in London will go without a paycheck this week.) In the bad old days all of Mahler’s symphonies were accused of being freakishly outsized, but only this one, to my mind, qualifies. One longs for it to be smaller, even when the chorus is only six hundred strong, as it was last night, well short of the eight hundred or so it would take to qualify as the “Symphony of a Thousand” – to be fair, the nickname was added by an imaginative impressario. The symphony has trouble getting ashore, but worse than that, Mahler’s conception is self-defeating.
“Sachs, mein Freund!” Bryn Terfel has sung extracts from Hans Sachs’s music for years, and the character always seemed well suited to his warm voice and air of easy humanity. But he didn’t unveil the complete role until this season, in the very production of Die Meistersinger that visited the Proms last night. Terfel proudly puts Welshman after his name, and he promised the country’s National Opera that they would get his first Sachs. Six thousand listeners in Albert Hall spent most of the afternoon and evening for the privilege, just over six hours (imagine the ones in the arena who had to stand), with scarcely a handful leaving early. Terfel raises sheep at home, and it takes a golden fleece to hear him in Covent Garden, the Met, or Salzburg. Here he was cheap as chips but musically priceless.
Schoenberg and his two most famous pupils, Webern and Berg, appear to be everywhere this season, receiving the most polished performances by the most distinguished musicians and ensembles. This is a somewhat absurd understatement when one speaks of the likes of Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Serkin, Alan Gilbert, John Harbison, David Hoose, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, and, soon, James Levine, but polish and musicianly mastery are the bare minimum for this uncompromising music, which is difficult for the players and, at least by reputation, for the audience. It is important to realize, however, that once performances are as plentiful and as excellent as they have been in New York and Boston over the past few months, the difficulty for the listener seems miraculously diminished. I’m sure all of these conductors have given serious thought to making this body of great works accessible and appealing to concert-goers, and all of these performances have been eminently accessible, with no trace the smoothing-over or dumbing-down.
To hear a program of music by Mahler and the members of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern) five days after the earthquake in Haiti is to experience questions about the role that the arts, and music in particular, plays in our lives. Burke and Kant recognized two categories of artistic experience, the beautiful and the sublime, one characterized by orderliness, balance, and grace, the other by overwhelming power. Beauty is associated with the works of humans, and the sublime with the acts of nature (and/or God, depending on your persuasion). Both pieces on the second half of the Vienna Philharmonic’s program (Webern and Mahler) contained climactic moments that can only be described as devastating, as close as art can get to imparting the experience of disastrous loss. As we read the papers about the destruction of a country, we struggle to find the connection between our own lives and the unimaginable suffering and trauma being experienced by our neighbors and fellow humans. Music can help.