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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E flat
Christine Brewer (soprano); Magna Peccatrix; Soile Isokoski (soprano) Una Poenitentiam; Juliane Banse (soprano) Mater Gloriosa; Birgit Remmert (mezzo-soprano) Mulier Samaritana; Jane Henschel (mezzo-soprano) Maria Aegyptiaca;
Jon Villars (tenor) Doctor Marianus; David Wilson-Johnson (baritone) Pater Ecstaticus; John Relyea (bass) Pater Profundus
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus; London Symphony Chorus; City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus; Toronto Childrenís Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
Recorded live at Symphony Hall, Birmingham: 5, 8, 9 June 2004 DDD
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 57945 2 9 [77í38"]

Reviews by John Quinn and Tony Duggan

John Quinn

With this release Sir Simon Rattle completes his cycle of the Mahler symphonies for EMI. Itís been a long journey, one that started back in 1980 when he made his first recording of Deryck Cookeís performing version of the Tenth Symphony Ė a score that, like the Resurrection Symphony, has always been especially close to Rattleís heart. Itís been pointed out several times how carefully Rattle has built his career. Thereís been a great deal of calculation on his part ... and I do not use that term pejoratively. He stayed in Birmingham for 18 years, building his career and the orchestra when it would have been so easy for him to have taken one of the plum posts undoubtedly offered to him over the years.

So, too, it has been with Mahler. He has been patient in his preparation of these scores and has not rushed his fences. For example, he first performed the Fifth a good number of years ago, by his own admission didnít do it very well and so put it to one side until he judged he was ready to have another go.

The Eighth was the last of the symphonies to be taken into his repertoire. I was lucky enough to be present in Symphony Hall on the night in August 2002 that he performed it for the very first time. Many of those performers feature on this recording too. Only one soloist has changed: Juliane Banse replaces Rosemary Joshua. But there has been one very important change. Back in 2002 the orchestra was the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (who performed superbly for Rattle) but now he has his old orchestra, the CBSO, at his command.

A few days after that 2002 Birmingham concert Rattle and his forces went to the Royal Albert Hall in London and took by storm the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. I have a recording of that broadcast, which is by no means put in the shade by this new CD.

One trait (of many) that is common to the 2002 and 2004 performances is the sheer animal energy and exuberance of the performance. Rattle seems to see this problematic score in one huge sweep and from the first downbeat the listener is carried along on a musical flood tide. However, one interesting fact emerged during my listening. My first reaction, especially on hearing Part I, the Veni Creator Spiritus, was that Rattleís is an uncommonly swift reading. I have several versions of the symphony in my collection and I expected to find that this newcomer would be the fastest of all. Not so. He takes 23í42" for Part I whereas the other recordings that I possess range between Leopold Stokowskiís 1950 traversal with the New York Philharmonic (available as part of that orchestraís boxed Mahler cycle conducted by various hands), which lasts 22í25", and Klaus Tennstedt (EMI, 1986) who takes 24í40." So Rattleís energy gives an impression of speed that is not entirely borne out by the facts ... though there are some pretty fast passages, of which more later. Where Rattle is quicker overall is in Part II, which he dispatches in 53í54". By contrast Tennstedt, and Jascha Horenstein, in his incandescent 1959 live performance (BBC Legends), require a few seconds under 58 minutes. The nearest to Rattle in my collection is Leonard Bernstein (CBS/Sony, 1966) at 55í04". These overall timings donít by any means tell us the full story but they are a useful indicator.

In his fascinating review of Rattleís recording of Mahlerís 5th my colleague, Tony Duggan referred to Rattleís "micro-managed" way with Mahler. I know just what he means - and, indeed, thatís a description that could aptly apply to this conductorís style in general - though I would prefer to speak of "thoughtful attention to detail." Rattle has always been intent that every detail of a score should register. More often than not, this produces illumination but sometimes it can get in the way of the bigger picture. My listening to date of this current performance leads me to the conclusion (so far!) that any micro-managing is, on this occasion beneficial. Thatís not to say that I agree with everything Rattle does but the overall vision is convincing.

Quite frankly, thereís comparatively little time for micro-management in Part I. Here much of the music confronts the listener head-on, though there are several more relaxed passages. One of the key features of this symphony is that for all the vastness of the forces employed, for long stretches they are sparingly used and there are many sections of chamber-like delicacy. However, most of these occur in Part II. Much of Part I is about grandeur, sweeping vision and ecstatic praise. Rattle, an acknowledged master of large forces, is in his element here and, as I indicated earlier, the movement appears to be over in a flash.

Iíve deliberately compared this Rattle reading mainly against the two in my own collection that I rate most highly. These are Soltiís 1971 studio recording (Decca) and the aforementioned Horenstein live performance from 1959 (BBC Legends). It seems to me that Rattleís recording demands comparison only with such exalted peers.

Rattle gives Part I a thrilling, urgent start to which the marvellous new Symphony Hall organ makes a telling contribution. Horenstein is more measured here. His opening also has life and vigour but the pace is never such as to threaten a loss of grandeur or definition. Rattleís account of these opening pages has definition too but perhaps misses a little grandeur. Soltiís opening, more closely recorded, is thrilling too, with some ringing tenors in his chorus. Rattleís brisk pace means that he has to slow down at "imple superna gratia". By contrast, Horenstein doesnít need to do so; in his hands this passage is as lyrical as Rattle makes it but one doesnít feel any loss of impetus.

In the bars leading up to the first rendition of "Infirma nostri corporis" (track 3, 0í18"), Rattle makes a big, rhetorical slowing, which I find rather jarring. Horenstein doesnít resort to such measures because his tempo allows him greater consistency. Itís at this point that we realise that Solti has the best set of soloists (excellent though the rival teams are) and in this passage his soloists make particularly good use of accents to impart definition to the music.

Thereís a grand rhetorical flourish at "Accende", the launching point for a tumultuous allegro. Horensteinís performance has marvellous weight and drive here. Despite the limitations of the rather distant recorded sound this moment really counts for something in his reading. Rattle is appreciably faster. Some may find him too frenetic here but his performers can live with the tempo and so the result is tremendously exciting. Solti is also fast and urgent though he yields a little to Rattle. When the opening "Veni Creator Spiritus" material returns itís an immense, theatrical moment for Solti and he makes it even more overwhelming than do his two excellent rivals.

In the last few minutes of Part I the listener is swept along on a veritable torrent of sound. Rattle is exuberant and exciting here but towards the very end (track 8, from 1í48") I feel he presses the tempo just too far Ė an impression I had when I heard him do the piece in Symphony Hall. For me, he sacrifices too much power and grandeur. Horensteinís account includes a few fluffed notes but it packs a huge punch at this point, albeit at (indeed, because of) a steadier tempo. The performers give him their all, the solo sopranos soaring magnificently, and the recording can scarcely contain the sheer volume of sound. But Solti, whose totally committed performance leaps out of the speakers grabbing the listener by the throat, trumps even this magnificence. Solti storms the heavens here, his huge ensemble crowned by the ardent soprano of Heather Harper. This is a quite superb culmination to Part I in the Decca version.

Part II, a setting of the final scene of Goetheís Faust is in many ways a huge contrast to Part I. It contains some "big moments" but much of it is on a more restrained scale and, as Colin Matthews points out in his liner note, it is a series of tableaux. The lengthy instrumental introduction is superbly shaped and sculpted by Rattle. Here his acute ear for detail is readily apparent. In the music that follows the vocal soloists come to the fore, each having an extended solo.

David Wilson-Johnson is splendid as Pater Ecstaticus. John Relyea, who is commanding in the demanding, wide-ranging solo for Pater Profundus, follows him. However, it has to be said that Relyea doesnít quite emulate the magisterial authority of Martti Talvela (Solti). Talvela, admittedly recorded under studio conditions, is quite superb, pitching every note right in the centre. Horensteinís soloists are very good but are recorded more distantly.

Next we hear a Chorus of Angels. This is a simply marvellous moment in the Rattle account. When I first heard it I thought it too rushed. However, further listening persuades me that Rattle has judged this passage splendidly. His singers are infectiously light-footed. Solti is steadier and has the Vienna Boys Choir at his disposal. However, I find his female singers are, by comparison with Rattleís, too full-toned and I love the wide-eyed innocence that Rattle imparts to these pages. Perhaps itís inevitable that in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall acoustic Horensteinís account loses some crispness here.

Jon Villars surmounts the cruel tessitura of Doctor Marianusís first solo well, though I suggest itís well nigh impossible for any tenor not to sound a bit strained here. This solo is followed by a gorgeous passage for violins, accompanied by harmonium and harp. This can all too easily sound syrupy and sentimental and Iím not sure that Solti entirely avoids this trap because he plays the passage slowly (and his harmonium is too prominent.) Rattle adopts a more flowing tempo (track 18 0í00" Ė 1í05") and doesnít milk the music but plays it with simple feeling. I like this very much ... and Horenstein is similarly successful.

The female soloists now take centre-stage. There are fine contributions from Christine Brewer, Birgit Remmert and Jane Henschel, both individually and as a trio (track 19) though Solti has a stellar trio comprising Heather Harper, Yvonne Minton and Helen Watts, who all sing splendidly for him. As Gretchen, I think Lucia Popp has a slight edge over the excellent Soile Isokoski (track 20) but in the same section I find that the singing of Rattleís childrenís chorus is much preferable to the "fatter" sound of the Vienna Boys Choir (Solti).

The short solo for Mater Gloriosa (track 22) is a key moment. In his 2002 Symphony Hall performance Rattle pulled off a tremendous visual and musical coup de theatre. His soloist (Rosemary Joshua on that occasion) sang from a vertiginous, isolated perch high in the side screens of Symphony Hall to the right of the organ casing. She must have been fully fifty feet above the stage. I suspect Juliane Banse was similarly positioned this time round and the effect of distancing is quite spectacular. The lovely Arleen Auger (Solti) is too present by comparison. Horensteinís soloist, Beryl Hatt, sounds to have been similarly distant (up by the Royal Albert Hall organ, perhaps?) but the moment isnít quite as daring as Rattle makes it and is marred by some bronchial coughing by members of the audience.

Horensteinís tenor (Kenneth Neate) is splendidly heroic and lyrical at "Blicket auf" but Jon Villars does equally well for Rattle. A solo clarinet ushers in the soft entry of the Chorus Mysticus and Horenstein is unsurpassed in these few bars. He achieves a rapt stillness and thereby prepares the choral entry unforgettably. The hushed entry of his choir, paced very slowly, is quite spine-tingling and not even audience noise can dispel the magic of these pages. Rattle also prepares the chorus entry very well but even he doesnít match Horenstein for atmosphere and sheer daring, nor can his choir sing as quietly as Horensteinís or Soltiís. The fortissimo outburst at "Alles vergängliche" is like a blaze of sunlight in the Rattle reading but itís an equally impressive moment in the other two recordings. The very end of the Horenstein performance is tumultuous (if somewhat dominated by the drums) and Soltiís recording, with the full power of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra unleashed, is formidable. For me, Rattle rather spoils the final peroration, as he did in the first movement, by pressing the tempo too much for a few crucial moments (track 25 0í45" Ė 1í12") though grandeur is achieved with the final entry of the tam-tam and organ.

If Iíve expressed some reservations about points of detail in this Rattle recording let me remind readers that Iíve been comparing it with two other exceptional performances. Any quibbles on points of detail should not detract from the overall impressiveness of Rattleís achievement here. Soltiís remains a classic reading, stunningly recorded (under studio conditions in Viennaís Sofiensaal) and with a superb array of soloists. Horenstein offers a special experience. There are sonic limitations but these are as nothing when set beside the magnificence and sweep of his reading. Rattle, it seems to me, offers a "middle way". With him you get the thrill, the risk taking of a live performance. However, with excellent recorded sound and scrupulous attention to detail in the preparation and execution of the performance you also get many of the benefits of a studio reading.

With a work as complex and unique as Mahlerís Eighth itís impossible to suggest a "best buy," I think. Indeed, it could almost be an impertinence. We are lucky indeed that three such fine recordings, albeit very different ones, are available. Mahler enthusiasts will want to hear all three for each sheds fresh light on this amazing score.

Though one may not agree with every detail, this new recording is a formidable achievement and a fitting culmination to Sir Simon Rattleís recorded survey of the Mahler symphonies. Like Soltiís version was for three decades (and in many ways still remains) this new recording will, I suspect, become a benchmark. Itís not the last word on Mahlerís Eighth (there never can be a "last word" on this piece, nor on any work of performing art) but itís a recording by one of the most thought-provoking Mahlerians of our day and one that demands to be heard.

Superbly performed by all concerned and expertly recorded by EMIís engineers, I recommend this CD with great enthusiasm.

John Quinn

 

and Tony Duggan ....

There was a time when the ambition of any young conductor was to first get a recording contract and then be allowed to record a complete Beethoven cycle. Today just getting the contract is the major achievement but, contract signed, it seems to be the Mahler cycle that comes before the Beethoven.

With this recording Simon Rattle completes his Mahler cycle for EMI. I am sure that when he recorded the Deryck Cooke version of the Tenth with the Bournemouth Symphony in 1980 the young pretender had no idea that he would, twenty-five years later, have racked up the whole canon, including a second recording of the Tenth with the Berlin Philharmonic of whom he would, by then, be Chief Conductor. So this was not a "conscious" cycle, rather it was one to be made up as it went along.

While EMI's publicity makes much of the "three cities" represented by it, the recordings have followed as individual projects and, more interestingly, projects that have represented the rise and rise of Simon Rattle: blue-eyed boy of British music, future Knight of the Realm and all-round glittering hope that is certainly showing fulfilment. Now with this Mahlerian finale back in Birmingham where it all properly got into its stride it seems a good idea briefly to take stock of these steps in the irresistible rise of Rattle.

The first thing that needs to be said is that it is surprising just how inconsistent the cycle now really seems; a work still in progress. This is over and above the fact that no conductor has ever conducted all the symphonies with equal consistency and irrespective of my personal predilections for Mahler interpretation. Neither do I think it has anything to do with the fact that some of the recordings come from early in Rattle's career and so might repay re-recording now. His interpretation of the Tenth, for example, the only one he has re-recorded, is largely unchanged between his first recording in Bournemouth and its remake in Berlin. Indeed there are some grounds to believe that the first version is superior even though the second is still mightily impressive. I think the fault, if fault it really is, lies with Rattle himself and his own particular approach to Mahler. When it all works it works superbly. When it doesn't the results are mildly disappointing though never without merit. A case of comparing the very good with the outstanding.

The cycle as a whole is far from being a central one, therefore. No shame in that and certainly no reason to pass it by. Mahler is nothing if not a conductor's composer par excellence. So this is a cycle to be picked and chosen but certainly one that deserves attention because Rattle's love and knowledge and insight into Mahler's music shines through, even though there are times when he is his own, and Mahler's, bane. Must-haves, for me, would be the Second, Sixth and Tenth in either version. These three should be on every Mahlerites already creaking shelf. Fascinating but flawed are the Seventh in a slightly cramped "live" recording made at Aldeburgh and the Fifth which, for me, exposed Rattle's propensity to "micro-manage" the music into submission in a symphony I have never felt he was entirely at ease with. To be avoided are the Fourth which is too mannered where it should flow, and the Ninth which suffers from too wide a dynamic range in the recording and not enough experience of conductor and orchestra together. Rattle certainly needs to re-record the Ninth. The First and the Third are well recorded and well played, good choices, but they are not in the "killer" class of the competitors, old or new. The "Das Lied von der Erde" still impresses greatly with its focus and its crystal clarity, but there are more involved versions to be had and in that work involvement is crucial.

Which brings me, at last, to the new Eighth and let me say straight away that I would not include this in the "must-haves" rather in the "fascinating but flawed" group. Even though, as is so often with Rattle, the flaws are not without interest in themselves, as we shall see. You will certainly hear as good a set of soloists since Solti's matchless constellation on Decca. The choruses are superbly prepared and capable of anything Rattle asks of them - and in faster passages he asks a lot - and they have depth and resonance when needed. The orchestra plays well also, especially in the solos and the chamber-like, pared-down, passages. But I think they could do with more critical mass in the closing peroration and at the climax to Part I particularly. The recorded balance is almost ideal between chorus and orchestra although the general sound picture is closer-in than I think benefits this work. Your seat is somewhere at the front of the first circle. There were times when I longed for the balance of the Royal Albert Hall from Rattle's 2002 Proms performance with the National Youth Orchestra. However, this does mean that the particular character of Rattle's approach to the work is heard to good effect and so I think it suits this performance very well.

In both Parts, but most especially in Part I, Rattle seems more aware than most conductors of the symphonic aspect of this work which might, for some people, be rather constricting and lead to an impression of slight stiffness in music that needs to burgeon. He presses forward from the very start with just enough weight to give power where needed, but this is certainly a great start with real propulsion. He holds back imperceptibly in the passages for the soloists but there is always that undertow drawing us on. In the crucial double fugue at "Accende Lumen Sensibus" the choruses perform miracles of ensemble with every line clear; a tribute to the engineers as well as the singers. The climax at the recapitulation of "Veni Creator Spiritus" sees Rattle applying the brakes for dramatic effect and this too comes off well. However I mentioned earlier the lack of real critical mass by the orchestra at climaxes and here this aspect did disappoint me. Horenstein on BBC Legends (BBCL 4001-7) has maintained a slightly slower overall tempo for the whole movement and doesn't need to slow down so much when he reaches this moment. That aspect, the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall, more choristers, and an orchestra that has that very critical mass missing from the CBSO delivers a climax here that could remove the cladding from a nuclear reactor, so shattering is the Part I climax in that great recording, something beyond the scope of Rattle's performance. At the end of Part I Rattle maintains his fleet tempo to the end where Wyn Morris in his old Symphonica recording broadens very slightly to shattering effect and where Horenstein with his modular tempo simply holds on to what he has all through maintained and leaves us gasping and his audience applauding. No audience applause for Rattle and his performers, by the way, but more of that later.

In a recent interview Simon Rattle talked of what had brought him at last to the Eighth Symphony mentioning in particular "really going back to Bach and learning once again to fall in love with counterpoint". This aspect is certainly in evidence in Part I and does make a positive contribution in terms of clarifying the lines, as I think I have indicated. However I think in Part II, where the Bachian impression seems in even greater evidence, it starts to become a disadvantage. Did Mahler really want Part II to have so much of a Bach cantata about it as I think it does? Listen in the orchestral prelude to the woodwinds' contributions and to the pizzicati and then think of Bach and you will surely hear what I mean. Certainly I think that the fleeter tempo approach that is carried on from Part I does rather "dry up" this late romantic setting of Faust even though it knits it together structurally to a greater degree than usual. Call me old fashioned, but I think both Goethe and Mahler need a lot more elbow room than Rattle gives them in Part II. I'm all too well aware of each compartmentalised episode coming and going and not leaving very much of an impression which cannot be right. The symphonic imperative is in evidence again but here I think it just inappropriate, at least to this degree. There are virtues, of course. I love the passages for the children, and the three women have a chaste and limpid quality. But contrast these with passages when the music demands more heft, more romantic weight and old world passion. There is insufficient weight in the orchestral prelude when it demands it, for example, and the two great interventions by the tenor as Doctor Marianus are too contained where they should storm the very heavens. So there is little rapture in "Blicket auf" and the sheer effrontery of "Hochste Herrscherin der Weit" is only approximated. But what I miss most of all in Part II is a sense of occasion from this most public of Mahler's works. A feeling that I am participating in a piece of theatre, a communal experience. Listening to recordings by Horenstein, Stokowski and Scherchen I think I get a whiff of what it must have been like to sit in the exhibition hall in Munich in 1910 when Mahler himself gave the performance of his life and that's what I really want.

The new Rattle recording is flagged as a "live" recording but you would never know from listening to it and the three dates indicate a patching together of three different performances. No applause at the end of each part, no sense of an audience present, not even a sense of performers living through the drama of delivering this most complex of works in front of paying customers. For me "live" should always mean "live" with all the positive elements that brings to those truly "live" recordings I have already mentioned. Rattle's recording should therefore be considered a studio recording but since I've heard even studio recordings which give a greater sense of a "live" experience - Morris, Solti, Bernstein, Tennstedt - it is even harder to know how to advise as to whether you need to buy this recording in particular over any other, but I must try. However, I would point you to my survey of Mahler recordings where my preferences for recordings of the Eighth are dealt with in detail.

What we are presented with here is, I am sure, the conception of Mahler's Eighth Simon Rattle meant us to hear. By that I mean any shortcomings that I may find in it are certainly not as the result of any shortcomings on Rattle's part. This is what he meant. It is a lean and direct Eighth, one that fits easily on to a single disc. Not one without expressive points but one which seems intent on a Bach-like clarity and sense of direction and structure as an imperative. This accounts for its apparent lack of some grandeur and that all-important sense of occasion when compared with more familiar versions. Especially those which genuinely capture the "live" experience in which this work surely needs to be heard best. I was not especially moved or inspired. Rather I was absorbed by a different, very refreshing approach. In the end that makes it recommendable as an alternative, if not cherishable as a must-have.

Tony Duggan

 



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