The Symphony No. 8 is another example of
Mahler's obsession with the conflict between the life-force
and the death-force. By virtue of its sheer scale it can reasonably
be judged his most ambitious project. Any performance will be
a special occasion, at once memorable and uplifting.
In the summer of 1906 Mahler worked on the
new symphony, describing how the process evolved: 'I went up
to my hut with the firm resolution of idling the holiday away
and recruiting my strength. On the threshold of my old workshop
the Spiritus Creator took hold of me and shook me and drove
me on until my greatest endeavour was done.' He concluded his
draft score on 18 August, writing that day to the Dutch conductor
Willem Mengelberg: 'It is the biggest thing I have done so far.
Imagine that the universe begins to vibrate and to sound; for
these are no longer human voices but planets and sun rotating.'
Although the Symphony is veritably a concert
in its own right, there are just two movements. The first is
a setting of the medieval hymn, Veni, Creator Spiritus,
while the second is a realisation of the closing scene of Part
II of Goethe's Faust. Mahler develops once again his
artistic preoccupations: firstly with the celebration of the
creative force, secondly with mankind's redemption in the face
of the eternal question. For this is another example of his
view of the symphony as a world, in which all manner of imageries
serve towards expressing his artistic vision. In this case the
Latin hymn from the 9th century is united with Goethe's
most ambitious project, his humanistic vision of Faust's Redemption.
The score calls for a huge orchestra, but
the purpose is less to provide massive blocks of sound than
a wide variety of contrasted textures and sounds. As ever with
Mahler, he employs a series of chamber orchestras. The same
precision might be applied also to the vocal forces, divided
into two choirs, children's choir and eight soloists.
Mahler conducted the premiere of the Eighth
Symphony in Munich on 12 September 1910, and the performance
was repeated the following day. These were special festival
events which took place in a purpose-built hall. By then he
was based in New York, intrigues having ousted him from his
position at the Vienna Court Opera. The Munich performances
were triumphant, indeed the greatest triumph of Mahler's career;
yet he would never conduct in Europe again. After his return
to New York, his health deteriorated from the heart condition
that would kill him eight months later.
The first movement opens with a powerful
burst of activity, Allegro impetuoso. For the
conductor the task includes the necessity of keeping the huge
forces together, and in that sense experience of conducting
in the opera house is surely helpful. Sir Colin Davis scores
on this count and it shows. The opening is as impetuous as one
might wish, while the recorded sound, remastered into Super
Audio format, supports him to the full. On the larger scale
there is also the sense that the initial momentum will carry
through the longer-term implications and drive. The two-CD organisation
of the discs is intelligently presented too, with the first
of them only twenty minutes long for the Veni Creator
movement, and the other containing the hour long second movement
treatment of Part II of Goethe’s Faust.
In the first movement the initial confidence
subsides into the darker and more complex imageries associated
with human frailty, at the words 'Infirma nostri corporis'.
In due course this too allows for the contrast of the ecstatic
plea for light and love, 'Accende lumen sensibus', before
the arrival of the children's chorus and their song of joy,
'Infunde amorem cordibus'. Throughout these various phases
the symphonic thread remains paramount, while the development
also includes a vigorous double fugue, forced into march tempo.
The final phase, surely intended to create a thrilling effect,
reinforces the idea of the Creator Spiritus.
Davis holds these seemingly disparate strands
together with an ebb and flow of tension and relaxation. What
is less satisfactory, however, is the balancing of his team
of solo singers, in both senses, recording and performance.
The microphone placings are surely too close and a pianissimo
is not achieved when one is needed. In performance terms the
men seem stronger, or at least on better form on the days of
these live performances than the women, who too often force
The extended second movement contains the
symphonic ingredients of slow movement, scherzo and finale.
The atmospheric music of the earlier stages is given to the
orchestra alone, setting the Faustian scene: a rocky mountain
gorge, with lions prowling. But there is a deeply symphonic
logic at work here, since the 'Accende' theme from the
first movement is heard in several transformations, at an Adagio
tempo that Davis gives in a bold treatment, very slow indeed.
When the voices enter, the choral voices are most atmospherically
placed in the recorded perspective, while the baritone and bass
soloists, Sergei Leiferkus and René Pape, develop an intense
The solo singers become increasingly important,
since they represent symbolical characters, associated with
ideas rather than personalities, the progression moving towards
spiritual awareness, and as in the opening movement the men
are more effective than the women.
Mahler uses all his experience as an opera
conductor in creating orchestral music which vividly supports
the potent imageries of the text, and Davis follows this lead.
With so ambitious a vision, the finale must add an extra dimension.
This begins Adagissimo until the symphony moves towards
its emotional climax with the prayer of Dr Marianus: 'Virgin,
Mother, Queen and Goddess.' This leads into the final chorus,
the Chorus Mysticus, which begins as an awestruck pianissimo,
moving inexorably in a great crescendo to reach a sublime and
resounding climax. While no recorded performance can match the
frisson of the real thing as a live experience, the super audio
sound from RCA does rise to the challenge and shows few signs
Any performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony
must be a special occasion. This RCA issue, while not a top
recommendation (an accolade reserved perhaps for Sir Georg Solti
on Decca), does succeed in recapturing the intensity of the
performances at which it was recorded.