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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E flat Major ("Symphony of A Thousand") (1907)
(I Hymnus: Veni, Creator Spiritus [23:18]; II Final Scene from Faust [56:07])
Deborah Voigt, Soprano I – Magna Peccatrix
Margaret Jane Wray, Soprano II – Una Poenitentium
Heidi Grant, Soprano – Mater Gloriosa
Delores Ziegler, Mezzo-soprano I – Mulier Samaritana
Marietta Simpson, Mezzo-soprano II – Maria Aegyptiaca
Michael Sylvester, Tenor – Doctor Marianus
William Stone, Baritone – Pater Ecstaticus
Kenneth Cox, Bass – Pater Profundus
Atlanta Boy Choir/Fletcher Wolfe
Ohio State University/Maurice Casey
Ohio State University Symphonic Choir/James Gallagher
Master Chorale of Tampa Bay
Members of the University of South Florida Chorus/Robert Summer
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Robert Shaw
rec. Woodruff Memorial Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, 27-29 April, 1991 DDD
TELARC CD-80267 [79:39]

 

The sheer magnitude of Mahler’s eighth symphony is astounding. With each of his symphonies, Mahler added more instruments, using more timbres, and building a larger palette of sounds from which to work. Until someone actually sees the full 1028 performers on stage though, it truly isn’t conceivable just how large an ensemble this is. Nor is it truly possible to intuit just how difficult it can be to take so many performers and get them to work in concert. If one is familiar with massed marching bands or other such combination groups, it is evident that there is a point where a group goes from impressively large to just stupidly big. When you have too many players, there is no longer any musicality. The sound produced is just an aural mash produced by too much imprecision and too many individuals, preventing there from being a whole any longer. Thus Mahler’s VIII is always an adventure. Done poorly, with more than 1000 individual musicians each providing their own little mistakes, this work is a muddled mess. When done well, this is, to use the composer’s own words, a piece where it is as if "the universe is beginning to sound and ring. It is no longer human voices, but circling planets and suns."

There is still much that is unconventional about the Symphony of A Thousand, even once one gets past the size of the performing group. Rather than the conventional four or five movements of largely orchestral music, this work is broken into two sections of largely vocal writing. The first is led off with a blast from the organ, an emphatic statement from the choirs, and a raucous rip from the lower brass. From there, solo voices working to a fugal pattern, explore the Latin hymn with chorus and symphony providing support throughout. The second movement is a slow progression from low, dark and brooding to bright, angelic music, providing the framework for what is essentially an oratorio in German built on the finale of Dr. Faustus. The two works are very loosely coupled, with only tangentially related texts and musical thoughts. They do not share a common language or thematic material. They do, however, complement each other in orchestration and tonal vocabulary.

The performance is very good. Robert Shaw does a masterful job of blending the huge chorus and orchestra. They seem to be a melded unit supporting the soloists. Actually, it seems again somewhat unbelievable that a group this size can be this agile. When massed they respond with blistering volume and aural pyrotechnics that would impress a rock and roll act. When pared down to smaller ensembles, they show a vast variety of timbres and moods that exemplify what Mahler was driving towards throughout his career.

However, no matter how good the performance was, this disc is not perfect. The recording is quite well done for the instrumentalists and soloists. Unfortunately, there are times, when the entire chorus enters, where the recording simply cannot do justice to the live group. Perhaps there were not enough microphones placed in the hall. Perhaps they were too near the soloists, and in an attempt to blend the room acoustics the choruses lost their power. Perhaps the engineer was a bit gun-shy and decided to turn the massed choirs down. Regardless of the reason, the effect of the fully massed choir collective falls down in comparison to the excellence of the soloists and orchestra. This clearly is not the fault of the performers or the conductor. It seems that there was some technical limitation that they simply were not able to overcome.

Even with that caveat, this is a wonderful performance of Mahler’s true masterpiece. It may fall short of the venerable and venerated Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Solti recording from 1972. That particular recording may have the greatest assembly of talent on a single recording of Mahler VIII, and at least in the first movement is this recording’s superior. However, in emotion and sound engineering, I’ll take the Shaw recording through much of the second movement. Solti may be the superior technician, but Shaw is the superior choral conductor in this case. Compared to the Bernstein/London Symphony Orchestra recording from 1966, I give Shaw the edge on technical wizardry, but Bernstein’s is potent enough to give goosebumps. The latter recording sounds a bit dated, but the chorus is able to overwhelm the senses at times. It comes closest to any recording that I have found to giving the listener the impression of actually being in the building during a performance.

Perhaps the truth is that the effect of 1000 musicians cannot be captured on a home stereo system. It is a comforting thought that there may be something which will always need to be live in order to truly capture the majesty of the work. If you are not familiar with Mahler’s 8th symphony, this is a very good place to expose yourself to it. After all, it is rare that the piece is performed, especially without a pared down ensemble. If, on the other hand, you are trying to capture a moment where the heavens opened, and you thought (if only for a second) that this must be the most magnificent music ever made, this will tease you. It gives the ‘taste’ of how wonderful the piece is. It shows you the outline, lets you smell the scent ... but somehow it doesn’t quite deliver. The magnitude of the work isn’t as evident. Fair or not, it’s just not quite as breathtaking when you have a volume knob that can be turned down. I suppose it’s like seeing the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls on your TV. You truly understand why it would be amazing to see. If you’ve been before, it may help you recall the experience. It’s just difficult to claim that this would ever replace the way you felt when you saw it live.

Patrick Gary



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