In the Summer of 1906 Mahler was troubled by thoughts of failing powers.
He decided to rest but on the first day of his holiday, whilst walking down
to his composing hut , "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." This was the Eighth Symphony. Though ideas
must have been germinating for longer, the actual composition took him about
six weeks. At its legendary Munich premier, which didn't take place until
four years later in 1910, the Eighth proved to be the triumph of his life.
This was the most immediately accepted of all Mahler's works and, as he himself
predicted to Willem Mengelberg, also the most easily understandable. Though
even he may have underestimated the depths of meaning the work carries. Today
many people have problems with the Eighth. For some who enjoy everything
else Mahler wrote, the Eighth is a "symphony too far". More used to Mahler's
other works, some of today's listeners perhaps find its directness puzzling.
It does seem to defy its place in Mahler's output, a feeling the audience
of 1910, much less used to Mahler's other works, would not have had. If we're
going to come to terms with it we should start by seeing it as the culmination
of a particular genre in his output that began with "Das Klagende Lied" and
continued in the later parts of the Second and Third Symphonies. Here he
diverges radically from even his idea of basic symphonic scheme and we must
see this strand of his work as representative of a specific "anthology technique"
in which dramatic cantata, orchestral song, opera, passion and sacred oratorio
become gathered together under the broadest of umbrellas. Also, since this
is Mahler, that trait in his work of "significant recall" from his own works
must also become part of the technique of which the Eighth is culmination.
It's scored for huge a orchestra (including quadruple winds with eight horns,
as well as mandolin and harmonium), off-stage brass of four trumpets and
three trombones, eight soloists, a double choir, a boys choir and
concert organ. In fact, at its first performance, the impresario who mounted
Mahler's "Barnum and Bailey" work (Mahler's epithet) advertised it as "The
Symphony of A Thousand" owing to the fact that one thousand performers took
part. Do note, however, that Mahler himself never sanctioned the title you
often see on record covers and concert programmes.
The Eighth is at base a statement
of Mahler's personal aspirations: a
belief in the ability of the inspired
spirit to lift mankind to the highest
plain of achievement through Love in
all its aspects and embodied specifically
in "The Eternal Feminine" which, for
Mahler, meant his wife Alma to whom
the work is dedicated. Within that scheme
there are a whole cluster of other interconnecting
ideas to do with faith, belief and theology
which find resonance in the texts chosen
and the way they compare and contrast.
Any serious study of this work must
therefore also include a close examination
of these. Part I is a tight symphonic
setting of the Latin Hymn "Veni Creator
Spiritus". Part II a more rhapsodic
setting of the final part of Goethe's
"Faust". These two texts fuse religion
and humanism together, with Faust symbolising
mankind redeemed from wrongdoing through
Love. In that sense Part II answers
Part I both philosophically and also
musically since there are thematic links
to be found. The Eighth is also Mahler
in "public mode" in the same way as
Britten in the War Requiem. As such,
the Eighth is also like the Second in
that it benefits from being heard "live"
or in "live" recordings and this has
certainly been my experience in listening
to so many versions for this survey.
When recordings of Mahler's
symphonies were still a novelty, those
of the Eighth were the rarest of all.
With its vast forces it was too big
and expensive to record in the studio,
so the faithful had to rely on a handful
of recordings taken from "live" performances.
The earliest commercial recording generally
available came from a performance at
Ahoy Hall in Rotterdam for the Holland
Festival of 1955. It was conducted by
a Mahler pioneer, Eduard Flipse, who
came from the Dutch Mahler tradition.
This recording was much beloved of a
previous generation of Mahlerites (not
least for the unforgettable sound of
the boys choruses - like a parliament
of street urchins straight out of Fagin's
kitchen) since it was, for some time,
the only recording you could get and
still has much to tell us. I am pleased
to say that it has now been
reissued in a coupling with the
world premier recording of the second
Deryck Cooke version of the Tenth Symphony
conducted by Wyn Morris. Scribendum
Let me also draw your attention to a
recording contained in the expensive
multi-disc box released by the New York
Philharmonic entitled "The Mahler Broadcasts".
To represent the Eighth a 1950 account
from Carnegie Hall conducted by Leopold
Stokowski, who had conducted the work's
American premier in 1916, was chosen.
I think this glowing performance can
claim to be the earliest commercially
available recording of all since a "pirate"
version on two five-inch "floppy" gramophone
discs was in circulation soon after.
It can be heard singly in a slightly
inferior transfer on Music and Arts,
but the "Mahler Broadcast" box version
is so superior in sound it demands separate release. I must also mention
a recording of a performance from the
year after Stokowski's, this time from
Vienna, where the conductor of the massed
forces of the Vienna Festival of 1951
is that great character Hermann Scherchen.
This was never released at the time
and lay in an archive until the late
1980s so doesn't fit into the recording
history like the others, but its place
in the performing history must be secure.
However, it's one for the connoisseurs
since the recorded sound is difficult,
the performance eccentric (as ever from
this conductor), and the performance
is laced with fluffs. For students of
Mahler performing history, though, and
for admirers of Scherchen, it should
be snapped up, especially since it manages
to sit on one CD even though the running
time exceeds eighty minutes. These three
recordings take us back to a past era
and a time when Mahler's music was still
a novelty for many, but also to a time
when performing practices still carried
with them an echo of what they must
have sounded like under the composer
at that glittering, celebrity-littered
Munich premier in the Summer of 1910.
Surely one of the first "last hurrahs"
of pre World War One Europe.
In early 1959 Londoners were treated to a performance of the Eighth at the
Royal Albert Hall that went into legend. This was conducted by Jascha
Horenstein, featured the London Symphony Orchestra, most of the choirs
in London, and was mounted by the BBC. It's been said that this was the event,
the remarkable background to which is related in the liner notes, that began
the Mahler boom in Britain. There's plenty of atmosphere conveyed by the
recording, now at last officially and splendidly restored on BBC Legends
(BBCL 4001-7), with a general sound picture with no distortion that allows
for a surprising amount of hall acoustic and the feeling you have a good
seat back in the hall. Only one stereo microphone was used high in the roof
so, though there is a feeling of stereo spread, there is little in the way
of precise directional characteristics except in the off-stage brass which
appear to come from high up and to the extreme right. I find the balance
near ideal for this work. The impression of "going for it" is apparent right
through the performance. The orchestra is inspired and the choirs sing their
hearts out. In Part I Horenstein is broader than Bernstein seven years later
with many of the same musicians but his choice of tempo is balanced within
his philosophy of what it is to conduct a work like this. One of Horenstein's
most striking fingerprints was an ability to pick one overall tempo to suit
an entire piece which also allows for the right degree of expression in those
parts that need them. As if he has the span in his head before it starts.
For me his less "impetuous" account of Part I creates a unique excitement
and power because it's built inexorably as the piece progresses. A tidal
wave by the end that stays in the mind because it starts from the depths
and is only varied to extents within the tolerance of the whole. A big test
is midway through Part I at bar 262, "Accende lumen sensibus". It's clear
from what few notes Mahler left that this huge central section is of crucial
importance to the entire work. The arrival of the chorus is ushered in by
the horns "bells up" and roaring out one of the crucial opening ideas. First,
this creates a theatrical entry for the choir's shout of "Ah.....CENde".
Second, this theme on horns will recur through the whole symphony and therefore
form a link between "Veni Creator" and "Accende lumen" in Part I as principal
engine for Aspiration. Then, later, in its appearances in Part II, for Redemption
and so linking the two Parts of the work. Therefore the arrival and execution
of "Accende lumen sensibus" must be one of the highlights of the work and
under Horenstein it certainly is. With his choice of overall tempo he doesn't
need to slam on the breaks for the preparatory horns as there is by then
enough forward momentum built up to lift the chorus and push it forwards.
Mahler then helps soon after. Notice how at the second statement of "Accende
lumen sensibus" Mahler leaves out any reprise of the horn introduction and
the result is an inner dynamic built into the music that pitches us forward
with no need for extra emphasis by the conductor. All Horenstein has to do
is hang on to his established tempo and he inherits what Mahler has given
him. It makes this moment even more telling because the power comes out of
the music and isn't imposed upon it. When the chorus finally unwinds to land
on the recapitulation of "Veni creator spiritus" at figure 63 there's still
no need for Horenstein to slow down and conductors like Bernstein and Tennstedt
do. He has managed to give us grandeur and excitement and allowed
each crucial theme to have its effect. The arrival of the recapitulation
has an inevitability rather than a sense of shock which Mahler surely intended
it to have. I must also say the volume of sound this recording produces at
this moment is overwhelming. Often the coda is spoiled by the conductor
increasing his tempo and rushing the end with the result you lose the sense
of all the themes being gathered together. This is not the case here.
Horenstein sees the orchestral prelude to Part II not as a "slow movement"
but a Prelude to the "drama of the mind" to follow. I'm sure this influenced
his choice of tempi, quicker than some, and the sheer passion he invests
the more animated sections of this music. There is tremendous yearning here
too, especially from the horns, when the music bursts out of its inner
ruminations. I also like the way the woodwind cut through the texture when
the chorus enter like malevolent birds squatted in trees overlooking the
wild landscape where Goethe's drama is played out. When the score calls for
it the recording allows too for the most whispered of pianissimo which contrasts
wonderfully with the massive sound of Part I which is still in our minds.
At bar 219 Pater Ecstaticus begins the first solo, singing of the power in
the rapture that Love, the ultimate determinant in Faust's redemption, brings.
I felt with Horenstein a sense that we had moved from one mood to another,
confirming his awareness of the anthology technique Mahler is employing:
from sacred to secular in one bound. Alfred Orda is backwardly placed but
he sings with the passion Mahler asks for and underlies that this is Mahler
in public style. Mahler let slip a remark to Richard Specht that he regarded
the Eighth as "a gift to the whole Nation". So is it any surprise that sometimes
such immediately accessible techniques are employed ? At 266, Pater Profundus
is next up. He describes the scene of rocks, woods, forests and the elements
that play around them. Horenstein and his soloist Arnold Van Mill rightly
see this as a tiny symphonic poem with voice, even more Wunderhorn-like.
Note too the use of trombones to indicate primal nature, acknowledged by
Horenstein as a recall of the same instrument's place in the Third and Seventh
Symphonies. The entry of the Angels carrying the immortal part of Faust,
and also the Blessed Boys who seem to worship the miracle of immortal survival,
is another natural development under Horenstein and so are the apparently
different sounds he manages to invest into each of the children's choirs.
The feeling is that they're coming from high up and way back, yet every word
can be made out. The special attention Horenstein brings to the children
shows me that he is aware of their importance in the scheme of the work.
Where the Blessed Boys sing:
Freudig empfangen wir
Diesen in Puppenstand:
(Joyfully we welcome him
in his chrysalis state)
there are clear links to be made from this cluster of ideas to the Third
Symphony's fifth movement with the children singing of Morning Bells, and
to the Fourth Symphony's last movement of the child's view of heaven. There
is a whole network of ideas buried within this remarkable passage that tells
us so much of what Mahler is trying to do in this work. Far too many to go
into here but which demand closer attention.
At bar 639, Doctor Marianus's praise of Mater Gloriosa (the Eternal Feminine
who represents the Love by which Faust will be redeemed) is the "Prize Song"
of the work and is suitably enraptured, holding no fears for Kenneth Neate.
And what a build-up he gives Mater Gloriosa. Note the wonderful string
accompaniment. Anyone who thinks Horenstein a "sober" conductor should listen
to this as Mater Gloriosa's arrival at bar 758 can too often sound sugary.
The sound Mahler asks for - strings with harmonium and harp - is unique and
saved from bathos by Horenstein's simple and direct treatment of it.
"Very flowing, almost hurried. Like a whisper" is Mahler's marking for the
trio of three women in deep sin and Horenstein observes this impressively.
In fact, I was reminded of the Three Boys in The Magic Flute and this passage
shows Horenstein's light touch, carried forward to the entry of the mandolin
at bar 1093 and the song of The Penitent (Gretchen) where Horenstein gets
his player to point the rhythm beautifully. There is a dance-like quality
to many these passages, in fact. I recall an interview with Horenstein when
he spoke of hearing as a young man "Das Lied Von der Erde" for the first
time and being more fascinated by the presence of a mandolin on the platform
than of anything else that he heard that night.
By the arrival of "Blicket Auf" at bar 1277 (Kenneth Neate again magnificent)
I feel I'm in the hall with these players, feeling with them the strain of
presenting this extraordinary work in what must have been a test of endurance.
The balancing of the parts in the remarkable section leading to the slow
transition with harmonium, celeste, piano and harps to usher in the Chorus
Mysticus is masterly. By now it's almost as if the performance has moved
into an even higher sphere. So to the Chorus Mysticus and we are almost home.
In the course of this chorus, and the work's postlude, Mahler ties together
the "Accende Lumen", "Veni Creator" and "Mater Gloriosa" themes to signify
journey's end and so does Horenstein. But to say he does only that
is to sell the Chorus Mysticus in this recording short. The astonishing crescendo
of the final chorus, as conducted by Horenstein, from whispered quiet at
the beginning to astounding mass at the close, has always been the greatest
glory of this performance, apparent even on the inferior versions we had
to put up with in the past. The way he holds on to his very slow tempo, building
inexorably as the music rises, is beyond belief. When the final orchestral
postlude arrives, with the "Veni Creator" theme from the first part exultant,
the power is almost visceral and the recording copes with everything without
strain: cymbals, tam-tam, organ and off-stage brass raining down on us. The
eruption of cheering as soon as the work ends signifies a whole lot more
than just the end of a concert. Here was an experience which I'm sure everyone
present would not have missed living through and it's one which I earnestly
advise all of you not to miss either.
Dimitri Mitropoulos was a Mahler pioneer too. He gave the first American
performance of the Sixth Symphony as late as 1947, shared the centenary cycle
in New York with Bernstein and Walter, and left a string of radio archive
recordings across the world that are only now receiving official release.
The "live" Salzburg Festival version from 1960 sat with the Flipse for some
years as all Mahlerites could get of the Eighth to take home on LP. Now it's
available officially on Orfeo (C 519 992 B). Mitropoulos's Mahler was expressive,
dramatic and based on a formidable knowledge of the scores. It was also always
heard best in the concert hall, as we found with his magnificent Sixth Symphony
from New York. There are downsides. Imperfections in playing have to be tolerated
and, as in the case of all those pioneering recordings of the Eighth,
deficiencies in sound too. But these are sacrifices I'm willing to accept
insofar as they don't stand in the way of quality music making. But be warned,
this mono recording may try the patience of those for whom perfection of
sound is a necessity. Everything is clear but there is some distortion at
certain higher frequencies and a slight "fizz" on the violins. There are
also one or two odd balances and an uncredited appearance by an aeroplane
over the Felsenreitschule during the soft chorus passage at the start of
Part II. The puny organ you hear first is not a promising start either. Neither
is Mitropoulos's chosen tempo, some way from the "Allegro Impetuoso" Mahler
asks for. The whole approach through the setting of "Veni Creator Spiritus"
is to grandeur and solidity. An approach Horenstein triumphantly justified
by driving on a touch more and Mitropoulos's performance illustrates what
can be lost if some heavy-footedness is allowed to drag proceedings back.
One benefit is that passages like the short orchestral interlude prior to
"Infirma nostri corporis" emerge with good detailing and those where the
soloists are singing together also allow us to hear every vocal line. At
the key passage midway through Part I, "Accende lumin sensibus", Mahler's
instruction to the horns to lift their bells for the great blast heralding
the choir's double fugue indicates a thrilling of the blood in the score,
but there are performances that do that more than Mitropoulos's. However,
as the double fugue progresses, a sense of cumulative momentum is built up.
The chorus is not as large as it might be but these are excellent singers.
By the arrival of the closing passage Mitropoulos's steadiness has so much
become the norm I at least had become adjusted and found the coda as thrilling
as ever, even though the timpani thumping out one of the movement's main
themes were a trifle stodgy. Good to hear Mitropoulos doesn't rush the ending
either, hanging on to the juggernaut until the final note. Not a great reading
of Part I, but a distinguished one for all that.
If I had reservations in Part I these are made up for by the performance
of Part II which alone justifies this release's importance. Here Mitropoulos's
ability to bend with the music delivers a deeply moving experience, a contrast
to the first part which may be what Mitropoulos was aiming for. The "Poco
adagio" is warm and expressive with passionate outbursts at key moments crowned
by the horns of the Vienna Philharmonic which will be such a feature. Then,
as each soloist appears, the impressive quality of all of them is confirmed.
Hermann Prey as Pater Ecstaticus is lyrical and reflective, Otto Edelmann
as Pater Profundus overcomes intonation problems to emerge tough, powerful
and commanding, and Giuseppe Zampieri's heroic tenor flies above his two
key contributions with heart-stopping emotion even at the tempo Mitropoulos
demands for Doctor Marianus's praise of the Queen of Heaven. This passage
is superbly prepared for by the choruses who give the impression of coming
from higher spheres. The heralded appearance of the Mater Gloriosa is serenaded
by the strings of Vienna Philharmonic with phrasing which only they could
produce - portamenti like a great singer would deliver. "Blicket Auf" penetrates
to the core of Mahler's setting of "Faust" sending shivers down the spine
as the end is in sight. As so often in this performance of Part II, there's
no hint of episodic structure. The women soloists are no less impressive
and I was particularly taken with the trio at "Die du grosen Sunderinnen"
where Mitropoulos's reining back of the tempo and the forward balance of
the soprano and two contraltos allows us to hear every vocal line. The closing
pages of the maintain the long line Mitropoulos established as far back as
Part I and in some ways justify by balancing his steady approach there. The
sheer power built up carries all before it, crowning this great performance
with a rare feeling of joy and release.
Leonard Bernstein's first recording is now on Sony (SM2K61837) could be said
to be the first of the "modern era" Mahler Eighths on record. It was studio-made
at Walthamstow Town Hall in London following two fraught "live" performances
at the Royal Albert Hall during 1966. The LSO are the orchestra, along with
a host of British choirs, professional and amateur. Firstly it has to be
said that the sound is showing its age. It was never "demonstration" in the
first place and, with the huge forces involved, a certain standard of sound
is needed. There's a tendency here, especially in the thickly-scored sections,
for the sound to become pinched and distorted. A really great performance
can override these but Bernstein's is some way short of that. He is ever
the "edge-of-the-seat" but expressive and subjective Mahlerian in this work
and he seems to be trying to recapture in the studio the excitement and drama
of the "live" experience. I praise him for that even though I find the results
variable. What he does in Part I is take the music by the scruff of its neck
and shake it rigorously. The opening is marked "Allegro impetuoso" and Bernstein
certainly manages to give that impression, but his subsequent changes of
tempi, certainly allowed for in the score, always come over too extreme so
this is a "stop-go" affair where the joins show. The first passage for soloists,
"Imple superna gratia" is too slow, as is the early short orchestral passage.
This feeling persists right the way through Part I and, for me, seriously
gets in the way of the developing drama, spoiling momentum that must be built
up as the piece progresses. The great central double fugue, beginning with
the choral shout at "Accende lumen sensibius", is too rushed for us to hear
everything clearly. Also the choruses aren't given enough opportunity to
get all the words across which, with this recorded balance, is never going
to be easy anyway. The visceral power this passage has needs more than just
a high speed to make its effect. In fact, "hysterical" is more the word that
comes to mind in Bernstein's superficially exciting, but ultimately unsatisfying,
account. The reprise of the opening "Veni creator spiritus" certainly needs
to be broadened, as Bernstein does, but the effect is just bombastic and
crude. Not the grandeur this passage can deliver, and the close of the movement,
like the central double fugue, is simply rushed.
The more episodic Part II suits Bernstein's general approach much better.
In fact, there's something of the operatic to the way Bernstein interprets
Mahler's setting of Goethe's Faust Part II. The orchestral Prelude finds
the LSO on fine form, though there are times where I find Bernstein's warmth
innocuous in music meant to depict "Mountainous ravines, forest, great crags
and wilderness." But he certainly finds the drama in it. The first choral
entry of the Anchorites has the right degree of raptness, however, especially
at the end prior to the entry of Pater Ecstaticus and Pater Profundis, whose
contributions are urgent. That is until Pater Profundis describes the storms
where Bernstein pushes too much. There's a fine team of soloists on this
recording, though I feel the women sound too much alike, especially unfortunate
in the long passage where three of them sing together. The choruses have
their sticky moments, though. Not least the Angels at "Gerettet is das edle
Glied", where some more rehearsal or a retake might have helped with ensemble.
Bernstein tries for "lift" here, but the chorus don't seem quite ready for
Doctor Marianus is John Mitchinson and he's the best of the singers. His
great entry praising the Queen of Heaven at "Hochste Herrscherin der Welt"
is prepared for by some very child-like voices in the choir but I don't believe
Bernstein does any more than skate over the surface of this crucial passage
leading me to wonder how far he had delved into the words his singers are
given. But no complaints at Mitchinson's central role in this section where
he brings every ounce of his experience and is very moving - as he is also
later in his other great solo "Blicket auf", parts of which he even manages
to darken. A pity Bernstein again rushes at the end when the chorus joins.
The arrival of the Mater Gloriosa, the lovely passage for strings, harp and
harmonium, finds Bernstein at his most syrupy. How to play this passage must
tax the minds of the best conductors. Bernstein's solution is at least
unashamedly romantic, Mascagni-like, and does stay in the mind. He closes
Part II with a performance of the "Chorus Mysticus" and subsequent peroration
and coda that sums up his approach overall well. The recording lets him down
in that the sheer volume of sound threatens to overload, but Bernstein maintains
a fine sharpness of focus which only wants for the kind of inner grandeur
missing from his account of the end of Part I. Bernstein's recording is a
good example of the inspirational, "on the wing", "moment-to-moment" approach
that can be made in this work. Parts of it come off, parts of it don't, and
you can certainly cherish it for the former if you can overlook the latter.
However, I think something more consistent right through will satisfy over
the longer period. This is, after all, what we buy recordings for.
Another recording straight off the shelf marked "Visionary" (sub section
"Interventionist") is by Klaus Tennstedt teamed with London Philharmonic
forces. Aspects of Tennstedt's overall approach mirror Bernstein's and his
studio recording on EMI sometimes comes out top in recommendations. However,
the Tennstedt recording is ruled out for me because of what I consider a
fatal flaw: the size of the chorus. Mahler specifies double chorus
and all other evidence, not least the first performance, suggests as many
singers as possible should be involved, something most recordings take as
given. Why then is Tennstedt's studio recording made with what is obviously
a single choir, namely the London Philharmonic ? They sing well, but that
isn't the point. There needs to be more of them to convey what Mahler wanted.
More regrettably I have to exclude Giuseppe Sinopoli's studio recording on
DG with Philharmonia forces for much the same reason. I regret this much
more because Sinopoli's reading is a fine one: passionate and thrusting but
without the fierceness that, for me, disfigures much of Solti's version dealt
with below. Again only a single choir is used by Sinopoli and the effect
is almost the same as with Tennstedt. In both cases, and especially with
Sinopoli, the engineers try to minimise the lack of personnel by recessing
the choir to make them seem bigger. The effect of this is to make the words
they sing much less audible. In Sinopoli's recording, for example, the first
"Ah" on "Accende lumen sensibus" during Part I is hardly audible. (If you
really want to hear how this thrilling entry ought to sound, go back to the
old Flipse recording which probably has more choristers than any other.)
I feel strongly about the size of the choruses and the question I would ask
those responsible for the Tennstedt especially is: Would it have occurred
to you to record Mahler's Second Symphony with half the normal-sized
choir ? Because recording the Eighth with the same sized choir as the Second
is effectively to treat Mahler's wishes with the same apparent contempt.
The reply might be that in the studio things are different. My reply would
be that other studio recordings manage to reproduce the requisite size of
choir with distinction. One of these is my next consideration, one of the
most famous recordings of the work in the catalogue.
Sir Georg Solti's 1971 recording on Decca has been a market leader
since it first appeared. It is now available in Decca's latest "Legends"
re-mastering (4609722). For many this has always been the version to have,
regularly topping the list of recommendations. It was recorded in the Sofiensaal
in Vienna but the orchestra is the Chicago Symphony who were then on European
tour and the sessions were crammed into what must have been a tight schedule.
You would never know it from the excellence of the results, though you might
argue the character of the performance might have been influenced by the
need to get in and get on with things. But then again there is so much here
that chimes in with the rest of Solti's Mahler. I've never been a particular
admirer of him in this composer. But, in spite of the reservations I'm going
to spell out, I reckon this his most successful Mahler recording. He delivers
all the thrust and "impetuoso" you could possibly want from the first note
on. Indeed, he delivers both right through Part I even when I don't think
he should. There are passages where he relaxes a little, the early "Imple
superna gratia" for example, but generally the undercurrent is to press onwards.
The soloists are well balanced and it will very soon emerge that this recording
boasts what I believe the best team of all. The choruses are excellent too,
as can be heard in "Infirma nostri" which is matched by a real sense of tension
and foreboding from Solti. The playing of the orchestra in the short orchestral
passage before this choral passage also tells us we are in for a treat in
that department, but I will come to have serious misgivings about the
appropriateness of the orchestral timbre the Chicago orchestra offers
overall. Right the way through, in spite of their matchless virtuosity and
thrilling drive, there is a hard-edged quality to the brass and strings I
find all too wrong in Mahler and which, for me, always disfigured Solti's
recordings with them.
In the Bernstein recording I found the great central double fugue at "Accende
lumen sensibus" too fast. Solti is no slouch here either, but such is the
excellence of his orchestra and choruses he pulls off this passage at this
speed with distinction. This is a roller-coaster ride that will leave you
breathless. Grandeur to be heard in Horenstein and Abbado in this passage
is largely lost, but at least Solti takes a specific view and succeeds. As
he does also in the close of Part I where the dynamism, a word that sums
up Solti's whole approach to this symphony, rounds off an experience no lover
of this work ought to miss, even though I'm still left, as I will be at the
end of the whole work under Solti, feeling short-changed. But more of that
The orchestra plays the prelude to Part II wonderfully. Though I remain in
my belief that their sharp sound is more suited to Bartok than Mahler, brass
especially. No doubting its technical brilliance, but the Vienna Philharmonic
should have been sitting where they were. I did like the way the whispered
choral passage that steals in afterwards comes over so seamless and in such
fine balance, though. An example, I suppose, of where studio recording can
score over "live" recording. Especially when, as here, no attempt is made
to replicate concert hall balance.
I mentioned before how I believe this recording boasts the best solo team.
Pater Ecstaticus is John Shirley-Quirk whose perfect enunciation and rapture
are a pure joy. Pater Profundis is Martti Talvela who vividly paints the
landscapes with Solti in splendid support, the orchestra recalling the first
movement of the Third Symphony through vivid bass shudders and penetrating
woodwind trills. (High voltage stuff at "Oh Gott ! beschwichtige die Gedanken".)
Doctor Marianus, the work's star part, boasts Rene Kollo on top form, especially
in "Blicket auf" which is a burst of pure ecstasy at what is to come. The
women are no less fine and so sad to recall that three of them - Helen Watts,
Lucia Popp and Arleen Auger - are no longer with us. Listen to Heather Harper's
top line at "Gloria patri Domini" in Part I for a moment of pure magic.
The closing pages see the brass of the Chicago Symphony towering as always.
In later performances I have heard Solti give of this symphony he drove the
end far too much. But hear he's more alive to the grandeur of Mahler's vision
and it sums up his whole approach well - dynamic, extravagant, technically
rock solid. I did mention earlier about feeling "short changed" at the end.
I don't refer to the performance itself, quite the opposite. It's the nature
of the performance as described that always stays in my mind, so that
what I miss is any lasting impression of the music of Gustav Mahler as
represented in this symphony.
Claudio Abbado's DG recording (445 843-2) was made "live" with the Berlin
Philharmonic but, I suspect, contains some "patching" to cope with performance
fluffs and any audience problems. Nevertheless, there's much about the finished
result that gives the feel of a concert performance. In many ways Abbado
is the opposite of Solti. Part I opens with a welcome broadness and a sense
of epic reach without the Allegro momentum being impeded in any way. A real
middle course between Solti's dynamic charge and Mitropoulos's stately
procession. Another aspect, noticeable even in the first few pages, is how
clear and revealing the sound picture is with every strand audible but all
in excellent perspective and allowing us to benefit from Abbado's stunning
ear for detail. There is an especially nice balance for "Infirma nostri"
where the orchestra with solo violin finds a strange, darker tinge to the
music that is arresting. And have you ever heard such a low bell as this
one ? The BPO percussionist must have hunted high and low (very !) for this
one. I also admire the way, right through Part I, Abbado seems ready to explore
other more reflective and lyrical aspects. But don't think for one moment
Abbado doesn't deliver power and drive. "Accende lumen sensibus" and the
closing pages satisfy completely and in the way they don't under Solti. The
chorus is just large enough and they are balanced better than in the Sinopoli
so they suffice. Here it's the music that stays in your mind rather than
the performance and the Berlin Philharmonic can match the Chicago Symphony's
power with a more substantial, idiomatic sound. Abbado's choirs are every
bit as well-drilled and responsive as Solti's also. At the end of Part I,
Abbado broadens slightly, again every strand clear and the extra brass are
thrilling. The organ might be more in the background than some at this point
but it's a small gripe.
In the orchestral prelude to Part II there's the most withdrawn and "inner"
playing at the very start than any I have heard. Later in this section, Abbado
gets playing of wonderful depth from his players without for one moment
forgetting what is being described in the music is a very unforgiving landscape
into which the whispered Anchorites merge perfectly with the excellent balance.
Distinguished among the choirs are the boys from whom we hear every word
and notice also Abbado's ability to suggest a real playfulness in the passages
with bells that lie at the heart of this work The soloists may not be as
fine as Solti's, but they are a good and pleasing group all the same. Cheryl
Studer is no match for Lucia Popp as Penitent, but who is ? But Bryn Terfel
is in fine voice as Pater Ecstaticus and while Peter Seiffert has a slightly
lighter voice than Rene Kollo, his Doctor Marianus is still memorable and
moving. "Jungfrau, rein in schonsten Sinne", praising the Mater Gloriosa,
is exalted with some lovely solo violin work accompanying and the women's
choir coming as if from high up. When the Mater Gloriosa actually does fly
into view it's interesting how Abbado seems to underplay the strings and
harmonium passage itself. It proves that in this recording Abbado knows when
to leave well alone: the concept of "less is more" never more appropriate
since this passage can sound very saccharine in other hands where here it
sounds unpretentious and thoroughly appropriate.
There are few recordings that manage to show so many aspects of this great
work yet still deliver a coherent, symphonic experience as Abbado's and for
that, and many other aspects, I rate this version very highly. In his recording
of the Second Symphony I noted how Abbado keeps sharp focus for the "Auferstehn"
hymn at the close. Interestingly for this work, he delivers one of the most
exultant endings on record. There are certainly few recordings that allow
you to hear everything so well. Though, again, the organ is a poor relation
at the end and this must have been a specific decision and not one that will
meet with universal approval. Apart from that, I think this recording is
the modern one that comes closest to Horenstein's conception and must be
counted a leading contender, particularly with such superb sound and playing.
Integrity matched to genuine fantasy is what you take away from this. A
fascinating and illuminating balance that I find very impressive.
A recording currently unavailable is one made in 1971 by Wyn Morris with
an orchestra made up the best London freelancers then available and some
excellent choirs of the right number. The studio sessions followed two Royal
Albert Hall performances and this is one of the few recordings of this work
made in studio that does give the impression of "live" performance, probably
due to the practice of recording in long takes. It first appeared on LPs
bought by mail order, but there was a CD release on IMP Pickwick (DPCD 1019)
where it was unaccountably divided equally over two necessitating a disc
change half way through Part II. But I'm prepared to put up with this on
account of a performance that defies classification. Wyn Morris is expansive,
substantial, sonorous and, in the opening passages of Part II, downright
perverse. And yet it works. The massed choruses in Part I have a fervent
blaze that always carries me away, the interpretation has monumental grandeur
like Donald Wolfit reciting Shakespeare, and though there are some lapses
in ensemble, especially in Part II, there are also passages Morris does better
than anyone. There are some good soloists too, including our old friend John
Mitchinson. This is definitely not a recording for the everyday, but it's
certainly one that deserves to be back in the catalogue, hopefully in a better
transfer and with one Part per disc.
Next another unique recording, one made "live" in Boulder, Colorado at the
Mahlerfest of 1995. This can be obtained from the Mahlerfest's own web site
and is well worth investigating. The pro, semi-pro and amateur forces that
gather in that city every year for one performance here give an account that,
whilst lacking in the elan and polish the big professional ensembles
can muster for big-name labels, makes up in sheer commitment and dedication.
The sound is a "conductor's balance" in that you hear everything in proportion.
Some may find the sound rather "boxy" at times, but you do soon adjust. I
could imagine some disliking the forward projection of the brass also, but
that didn't bother me too much and I noticed some details, especially in
the lower brass, I hadn't noticed before. I also thought the organ was well
balanced, not just when the instrument is going full out but when there is
a satisfying, rock-hard pedal underlying the texture. The soloists are well
placed and that is often not the case. Mater Gloriosa in Part II, for example,
is notable for sounding not just far away but also high up. I was disappointed
with the balancing of the boys in Part II, though. They sing well but they
fade from the texture.
I have heard recordings where some of the "great" orchestras have sounded
complacent but this is not a criticism that could be levelled at the Mahlerfest
Orchestra even though they do have their "off" moments. Playing well also
means communicating and they do that so well. The choruses are splendid too.
I could make out every word in loud and soft passages and there are some
thrilling entries, notably "Accende lumen sensibus". Robert Olson's pacing
of Part I was splendid. He seems to have taken care to pick a tempo that
gives sufficient thrust but also allows lyricism to come through. The
"conductor's balance" helps in the first choral entry in Part II. Too often
this can sound like a few grunts coming from behind the orchestra, but I
could hear what they were singing this time. I liked the tempo for the orchestral
introduction as well. Perhaps the orchestra sounded a little undernourished,
but it hardly mattered. There's a fine logic behind Olson's vision of Part
II and an antidote to the more operatic approach: focussed and clear-sighted,
mind on the end at all times. Take the interlude of Mater Gloriosa rising
- strings, harp and harmonium. The operatic approach, as with Bernstein,
can turn this into something out of Mascagni. Olson's sharpness of focus
fits this as a piece in the enfolding puzzle, leading us onward. In the
conclusion Olson doesn't disappoint either. I was struck by its dignity.
An odd word to use, but that's the word that comes to mind. Faust's redemption
as enacted here is a matter of honour: by those who save him, honour by the
triumph of his own basic goodness in spite of his fatal pact, the honour
that is in the concept that goodness triumphs not by superior force but by
the simple fact of being human. I have heard a performance where the conductor
drags the brass perorations out, turning the whole matter into one of superior
force triumphing over lesser force. Olson shows restraint here and the result
satisfies on a deeper level. The players might have "lost their lips" a bit
by then but even that adds to the sense of achievement hard one and I applaud
them all for it. This is a recording I advise you to investigate as a supplement
to the mainstream versions. It has some virtues missing in others, not least
the unmistakable quest of its performers to reach into themselves in order
to go beyond themselves.
For those on the most limited budgets let me draw attention to a single disc,
bargain-priced recording by Michael Gielen recorded "live" in Frankfurt
in 1981 on Sony (SBK 48 281). Gielen is always an interesting Mahlerian,
stressing the more modern aspects of his work, "head" rather than "heart",
which might not be the best approach to the Eighth when compared with other,
more exalted readings. But it certainly has its place. All the same, if this
is all you can afford you could do a lot worse than this. Bernard Haitink's
version, for example, also at around the same price on Phillips, should be
avoided as just dull which is no mean feat in this work. Gielen's version
also has the benefit of being recorded "live" and there's a sense of occasion
to be had from his quite brisk, direct, open-faced reading I rather like
as a supplement to my main choices.
There are other recordings available, of course. Lorin Maazel on Sony seems
to be deprived of all sense of direction, as if he "phoned in" his contribution
from his hotel bedroom whilst still in his silk pyjamas. Robert Shaw on Telarc
seems out of his depth in Mahler, predictably well-trained though his choruses
are. Leif Segerstam on Chandos is not quite as eccentric in terms of rubato
and mannerism as he was in his, at times, grotesque recording of the Second
Symphony. But after a few hearings any initial regard I had for his Eighth
evaporated. Also I found, as in his Second Symphony, the large reverberation
that surrounds the sound recording becomes tiring on the ear and I would
love to hear his alibi for the tam-tam crescendi at the end. Rafael Kubelik's
interesting DG reading should return to the catalogue as a single disc. At
the moment you have to buy his entire cycle to get it and re-issued it would
be an alternative bargain to Gielen. Kubelik was always one of the most rewarding
Summing up, in the modern digital recordings I have the highest regard for
Claudio Abbado's DG version and this is my best general recommendation taking
in the best modern sound, performance and interpretation. A pity about the
organ but it's, for me, a small point. I'll always retain a place in my
affections for Wyn Morris too. Not to everyone's taste, not ideally recorded
or played, but I believe that at enough times his is a version touched with
genius. Sir Georg Solti will continue to dominate for those who like their
Mahler Eighths more high octane, and Leonard Bernstein for those who like
their hearts on the sleeves. However it should be obvious that, for me, Jascha
Horenstein's version on BBC Legends is out on its own. If I was faced with
the destruction of all the rest leaving only one, this is the one I would
be satisfied with.