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