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Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No.8, "Symphony of a Thousand"
Orchestra, Soloists and Choruses of Manchester United Supporter’s Club, Simon Rattle (conductor)
Recorded at Old Trafford, Manchester, April 1st 1980
MUSC 001, 1 disc, super-budget price, 68 minutes

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Gustav Mahler needs no introduction to the readers of this music journal, but perhaps to the supporters of Manchester United FC, who are the stars of this 25 year-old recording, a few words of introduction might be needed. He was born in Austria in 1860, the same year that Lincoln became president of the United States, linoleum was discovered by Walton (not Sir William), the first innerspring was invented for seat cushions, and campari was discovered in Milan. Mahler got round to writing his first symphony when he was 28, a time many of us – including football supporters – are turning towards child rearing rather than symphonic birth. More progressive symphonies followed: the pantheistic Third, premiered when he was 42, the Visconti-influenced Fifth, finished when he was 44, the desperately grim Sixth, written during one of the happiest periods in his life, and completed when he was 46 and, in a rather busy year, 1906 again, the Eighth symphony spun off the drawing board in just six short weeks.

By the time of the Eighth Symphony’s appearance on the musical map, linoleum had been replaced by Bakelite, a synthetic plastic invented in Belgium almost to the day Mahler’s Eighth was published, but it was not until 1910 that the vast Eighth – played at the premiere by 1029 musicians and singers – saw the light of day, coincidentally in the same year that Campfire Girls were founded in the United States. A popular success for the composer, the symphony has been recorded by most of the great Mahlerians of the Twentieth Century, including the conductor on this disc, Simon (currently Sir Simon) Rattle, who now has a brace of recordings of the work to add to his ever-growing Mahler CV.

Merely a boy when this recording was made, Rattle brings to his performance a Faustian fire and cosmic force, a conception ideally suited to the open-air acoustic of Manchester’s Old Trafford stadium. The scene of many football triumphs, this may well be its first musical one, although it is sheer delight to have so many of the great football team’s supporters taking part in this recording. Their enthusiasm is simply infectious. If not a full house, it certainly sounds as if the choral contributions (from the mainly male choirs) raised the roof.

Lasting slightly longer than one full first half, and half a second half, Rattle’s speeds are brisk in the extreme. Some blurring of diction is inevitable, but what the listener does not catch is hardly missed when the power of the performance remains so persuasive. The acoustic of Old Trafford comes into its own at the work’s final climax, a moment of shattering and cumulative sonority that Rattle ratchets up with all the tension of a penalty shoot off. Some of the solo singing might sound on record more like the banter between players on a match day, but the extroversion of the contributions pays off.

Rattle’s first recording of Mahler’s Eighth may well have been superseded by his recently released EMI performance [review] from a very different gladiatorial home, Symphony Hall, but the gut-wrenching theatricality of his Old Trafford performance is a plausible alternative to the epic dimensions of the Birmingham recording. At full time, and at a very low price, it’s an irresistible bargain, though the music itself just squeaks home as being in a class of its own: Mahler 3, Manchester United Supporter’s Club 2.

Marc Bridle

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