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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 (1906) [83.21]
Alessandra Marc: Soprano I, Magna peccatrix, Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz: Soprano II, Magna peccatrix, Mater Glorioso, Sharon Sweet: Soprano III, Una Poenitentum, Vesselina Kasarova: Contralto I, Mulier Samaritana, Ning Liang: Contralto II, Maria Aegyptiaca, Ben Heppner, Tenor Doctor Marianus, Sergei Leiferkus: Baritone, Pater ecstaticus, René Pape: Bass, Pater profundus
Tolz Boys' Choir, Berlin Radio Chorus, Sudfunkchor Stuttgart
Bavarian Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
Recorded 7-8 July 1996, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich
Super Audio CD
BMG RCA RED SEAL 82876 62834 2 [22.51 + 60.30]


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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 tone. 

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 dialogue. 

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 of strain.  

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. 

Terry Barfoot 



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