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MAHLER: Symphony No.8    Mimi Coertse, Hilde Zadek (Sopranos), Lucretia West, Ira Malaniuk (Altos), Giuseppe Zampieri (Tenor), Hermann Prey (Baritone), Otto Edelmann (Bass) Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsoper, Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos  Recorded on 28th August 1960 at the Felsenreitschule, Salzburg.Orfeo C 519 992 B (Mono)

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When recordings of Mahler symphonies were still a novelty, those of the Eighth were the rarest of all. With its double choir, large orchestra, organ and seven soloists it was too big and expensive to record and the faithful had to rely on a handful of recordings taken from "live" performances. One of these was this recording made at the last night of the1960 Salzburg Festival two months before the death of its conductor Dimtri Mitropoulos. Now, for the first time on CD, we can, at last, hear the Austrian Radio master tapes revealing much more of this remarkable night than the previous unofficial versions ever did.

Dimitri Mitropoulos was a Mahler pioneer. He gave the first American performance of the Sixth Symphony as late as 1947, shared the famous 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. (He also dropped dead in Milan whilst rehearsing the last movement of Mahler's Third.) His Mahler style was expressive and dramatic but based on a formidable knowledge of the scores, always heard at its best in the cut and thrust of the concert hall. Never more so than with the Eighth Symphony which, along with the Second, gains so much from being heard "live" when the real struggle that performing these immense works adds dimensions of drama, spectacle and involvement no studio recordings can hope to convey. There are downsides, of course. Imperfections in playing and ensemble have to be tolerated and, in the case of those early pioneering recordings of the Eighth, deficiencies in sound. But these are sacrifices I, for one, am willing to accept insofar as they don't stand in the way of quality music making, and I don't believe they do in this case. Be warned, though, 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. Neither is Mitropoulos's chosen tempo some way from the "Allegro Impetuoso" Mahler asks for at the start. The whole approach through the setting of the hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus" that makes up Part I is to grandeur and solidity. This is an approach Jascha Horenstein triumphantly justifies in his "live" 1959 London recording on BBC Legends by driving on a touch more and Mitropoulos's performance does illustrate what can be lost in energy if some heavy-footedness is allowed to drag proceedings back. There's no doubt this is what Mitropoulos meant, though. I just doubt it's what Mahler meant and it must here be a case of trusting a conductor's judgement and going with it. One benefit of this approach is that passages like the short orchestral interlude prior to "Infirma nostri corporis" emerge with good detail and those where the soloists are singing together allow us to hear every vocal line. At the key passage midway through Part I, "Accende lumin sensibus", Mahler's instruction to the eight 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 much more than Mitropoulos's. However, as the double fugue progresses a sense of cumulative momentum is certainly 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 that 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 was still a trifle stodgy. Good to hear Mitropoulos doesn't rush the ending as some do, though: hanging on to the juggernaut until the final note. Not a great reading of Part I, then, 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 now 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" introduction is warm and expressive with passionate outbursts at key moments, crowned by the distinctive horns of the Vienna Philharmonic which will be such a feature to the end. Then as each soloist appears the impressive quality of all of them, glimpsed in Part I, is confirmed. Hermann Prey as Pater Ecstaticus is lyrical and reflective, Otto Edelmann as Pater Profundus overcomes intonation problems at the start 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 faster tempo Mitropoulos demands for Doctor Marianus's praise of the Queen of Heaven. This passage is superbly prepared for by the choruses who, with Mitropoulos and the orchestra, give the impression of coming from higher and higher spheres. The heralded appearance of the Mater Gloriosa herself is serenaded by the strings of Vienna Philharmonic with phrasing which only they could produce with portamenti like a great singer would deliver. "Blicket Auf" penetrates to the very core of Mahler's emotionally-charged setting of the final scene of Goethe's "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 an episodic structure - all is seamless. 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 allow us to hear every vocal line.

The closing pages of the symphony maintain the long line Mitropoulos established as far back as Part I and, in some ways, justify it 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. The extra brass at the close are too close, but who cares in music making as electric as this has become ?

A memorable occasion recording a performance touched, especially in Part II, with true greatness. Also a fine memorial to an unduly neglected conductor who, on this night, had only weeks to live.


Tony Duggan

See Tony Duggan's complete survey of recordings of  the Mahler symphonies


Tony Duggan

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