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Classic Records

Gustav MAHLER (1860 - 1911)
Symphony #8 in Eb, "Symphony of a Thousand" (1910) [75.36]
Nancy Williams, Marlena Kleinman, altos;
Stanley Kolk, tenor; David Clatworthy, baritone.
Malcolm Smith, bass. Alexander Schreiner, organ
University of Utah Choruses, Newell B. Weight and John M. Nielson, directors.
Childrenís choir coordinator, Vernon Lee Master
Janine Crader, Lynn Owen, Blanche Christensen, sopranos;
Utah Symphony Orchestra/Maurice Abravanel
Recorded Salt Lake City, Utah, USA [December 1963 in the Mormon Tabernacle?]
[AAD] Stereo 2.0 196/24 DVD-Audio. 96/24 DVD 2.0 stereo.
Notes in English. Photos of soloists. No printed track list, on screen only.
DVD-Audio. Also playable on all DVD players.

CLASSIC HDAD 2001 [75.36]

Comparison Recordings:
Abravanel, USO, Vanguard [AAD CD] 086 1797 1
Chailly, Concertgebouw Orchestra Decca 467 314-2
Chailly, Concertgebouw Orchestra [DVD-Audio] Decca B000 1498-19
Davis, Bavarian Radio Orchestra BMG 09026-68348-2
Sinopoli, Philharmonia Orchestra DGG 435 433-2
Tennstedt, LPO EMI 5 75661-2
Horenstein, LSO BBC BBCL 4001-7
Solti, CSO Decca 414 493-2
Bernstein, LPO [complete] and
Bernstein, NYPO [Part I only] both included in Sony box SX12K 89499

Mahlerís First Symphony (Mitropoulos), the Fourth Symphony (Walter), and the Song of the Earth (Walter 1936) I learned in my youth from 78s. They were all that was available at the time. When I got to college ó it was a technical college ó naturally somebody had had a by-modern-standards primitive tape recorder and a record cutter so there was a pirate LP copy of the Stokowski NYPO broadcast of Symphony of a Thousand circulating in the dorms. The sound was, of course, all but impenetrable, probably worse than nothing, but it suggested wonders to come. Gradually the Mahler discography bloomed during the hi-fi LP years, and we had the 1953 monophonic outdoor windblown live recording from the Holland Festival, complete with boat whistles in the background, to give a further hint of the legendary Symphony of a Thousand. In 1960 when I was DJ at a coffee house in Los Angeles and wanted to play all the Mahler symphonies on successive Sunday evenings, I was just barely able to do so by borrowing from several collectors.

When the Abravanel stereo LP recording appeared, I bought it at once, put side one on the machine, and with the first notes abruptly went into a semi-conscious state of what I have come to call "aesthetic orgasm". When the first movement was over I staggered to my feet, left the room, wiped my soaking wet face with a towel, applied first-aid to my swollen eyes and throat and realised that I remembered nothing from the previous 25 minutes. When my respiration and heart rates returned to normal I put the record away and listened to no music at all for days. This situation* repeated with decreasing intensity during my next listenings to the disk, and I began to seriously consider the idea of listening to sides 2 and 3, which eventually turned out to be so much of a let-down that I forgot all about it until quite recently. When I referred to the Mahler Eighth Symphony then I always meant the first movement only.

Over the years I avoided over-listening to the work, but found as I prepared this survey that I can listen to the music and enjoy it and even adopt a critical, evaluating attitude, and not wear it out. In a class with Bachís Mass in b minor and Rimsky-Korsakovís Scheharazade, it is among the most durable music there is.

The Abravanel/USO DVD-Audio features excellent choral performances. This is not exactly the fabulous Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but in a small town one can be sure that many of the best singers are in both that group and the university choirs heard here. The soloists are apparently all drawn from the chorus and given special coaching for the recording (as one friend pointed out cattily, obviously by an Italian who loved Verdi), so the sense of ensemble is exceptional with the soloists rising out of the chorus and sinking back into it effortlessly with no sense of competition. They are all excellent but do not have the enormous voices nor the star consciousness of the soloists in the other recordings. The recording location is not given, but knowing that Alexander Schreiner is the organist of the Mormon Tabernacle and there canít be many large halls with organs in Salt Lake City, one presumes that the recording was made in the Tabernacle and that religious discretion prevents them from mentioning it.

The drama in the first part is better than Davis and the pacing good, but disappointing in the bass range ó in fact, nothing at all below about 90 Hz and rolled off above that. The CD issue has more bass, to the extent that by turning up the bass control one can make the harmonic foundation line audible, but some odd thumps here and there may be the reason (not a good enough one!) that the engineers removed the bass from the DVD-Audio edition. Here would be a good use for a subharmonic synthesiser while listening.

Chailly and the Concertgebouw, one of the most widely praised of the new recordings, and available on DVD-audio (I have listened only to the CD tracks but have trusted my imagination to supply the remainder), was a bit ponderous in style in the first part, with well delineated drama in the choral parts, but the soprano was awful. The bass sound was excellent. In the excellent second section I got as far as the first big soprano aria and had to stop ó she could not find her pitch and I couldnít put up with it any more. The tenor sounded like he was wearing a tight corset and was about to explode, odd because the same tenor sings beautifully for Sir Colin Davis. Anybody can have a bad day. With so many good Mahler recordings we don't have to put up with this.

The Sir Colin Davis recording with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra on CD is similar in tempo to the Abravanel recording, but the mood is cool in Part I. Bass range sound is good, the soprano good, scooping her notes a little annoyingly at times (she recovers greatly for the final arias). In fact the soloists as a group are excellent, especially the men. Ironically, Heppner also sings on the Chailly recording, but doesn't sound good there, but here he is Siegfried incarnate! Baritone Lieferkus has sung everything but has never sounded so good as he does here.

The Solti version doesnít use the fabulous Chicago choirs but imports choirs from Vienna and a star roster of European soloists who clearly have a proper aristocratic attitude towards their noble status as opposed to the chorus rabble. The perspective is distant and cool, but the bass response is excellent if a little unstable. The final conclusion is thrillingly massive. Overall I get an impression of size, grandeur, dignity, but little sense of mystery or expectancy. Abravanel by comparison has a cohesion and, believe it or not, intimacy ó even at the most furious moments one can hear individual voices. The Utah childrenís chorus have a quality of innocence and naïveté to their sound whereas the Vienna Choir Boys do not let you forget for a second that Schubert and Haydn once sang in their ranks. In fairness, the Viennese choirs were a long way from home and may have been suffering from jet-lag.

Actually the first stereo recording I had on LP was by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with a star roster of soloists, taken live from the inaugural concert of the new Lincoln Center Philharmonic Hall. It was of Part I only and was pretty straightforward, although as I described one hearing of the Abravanel recording was enough to wash it completely out of my memory. In this first Bernstein recording we are not made aware of the bad acoustics which forced the early remodelling of Philharmonic Hall financed by, and hence renamed for, millionaire Avery Fisher. Bernsteinís second and complete recording features the odd distortions and exaggerations of phrasing for which his Mahler is famous and which I find unendurable even for short periods of time. If you particularly appreciate his approach then you probably donít like anybody elseís approach and will be perfectly delighted with the complete Bernstein Mahler set on Sony, and consequently will choose to ignore most if not all of what Iíve said here. Iíve had no opportunity to hear Bernsteinís later Mahler set on DG except small sections of it on the radio; in general I admire his later recordings with the VPO of other music, particularly the Sibelius Symphonies, but doubt he reformed his Mahler conducting completely.

You may feel that the Abravanel performance, considering my nearly psychotic reaction to it, has irrevocably upgraded my firmware and that I am incapable of judging fairly any other version. But my advice is: to assemble a perfect version, take Abravanel for the first section (with your subharmonic synthesiser connected), Chailly for the beginning of part two, and Davis for Pater Ecstaticus to the end.

*Apparently the young Donald Francis Tovey had similar experiences which lead his guardians to think he was unstable and liable to physical collapse. Thus they forced him to rest excessively and avoid exercise during his life, perhaps fatally weakening his heart and leading to his early death. Praise the Gods I never let on to anybody.

Paul Shoemaker

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