by Ian Bostridge, APRIL 17 2020
Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is an extraordinary creature, vast in its ambitions and almost megalomaniacal in its demands. Eight top-rank vocal soloists; two large mixed choirs and a boys’ choir; 22 woodwinds; 17 brass; an offstage brass band of seven; nine percussion; celeste; piano; harmonium and organ; two harps; mandolin; and full strings to match…
“All my previous symphonies,” Mahler wrote, “are merely the preludes to this one. In the other works everything still was subjective tragedy, but this one is a source of great joy.” It was a huge success, crowds surging towards the platform after it had finished.
In The Eighth, Stephen Johnson leads us through all the complexities of the work with skill and sensitivity. It’s clearly a piece that he reveres. In its embrace of joy and spiritual uplift, it has been the most controversial of Mahler’s symphonies in our own day, lacking that juxtaposition of sublimity and the banal that makes the composer such a postmodern pin-up.
Johnson’s defence involves not only a journey through the piece itself, underlining the subtlety and complexity that defy the overkill; but also a look at the world from which it sprang and the extraordinary and tangled personal story which somehow, despite all that objective joy, it still embodies.