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ArchivMusik (USA sales only)

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E flat Symphony of a Thousand (1906-10) [80:51]
Barbara Kubiak (soprano) Magna Peccatrix; Izabela Klosinska (soprano) Una Poenitentiam; Marta Boberska (soprano) Mater Gloriosa; Jadwiga Rappé (mezzo-soprano) Mulier Samaritana; Ewa Marciniec (mezzo) Maria Aegyptiaca;
Timothy Bentch (tenor) Doctor Marianus; Wojtek Drabowicz (baritone) Pater Ecstaticus; Piotr Nowacki (bass) Pater Profundis
Polish Radio Choir (Kraków); Warsaw Boys’ Choir; Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University Choir; Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Antoni Wit
rec. Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, 1-6 June, 2005
NAXOS 8.550533-34 [23:56 + 56:55]


Naxos has a large number of complete, or ongoing, cycles of one sort or another in its catalogue and many of them can stand comparison with the best. Unfortunately the Mahler symphony cycle hasn’t been one of them, at least the ones I’ve caught, where my general impression has been to agree with the critics who’ve dubbed them ‘worthy’ or ‘honest’. It appears the cycle has been shared out between Michael Halasz and Antoni Wit and it has to be said that the highest praise has been reserved so far for 4 and 6, both conducted by Wit and neither of which I’ve heard.

Coming completely fresh, as it were, to this Eighth, I have to say I have been quite surprisingly bowled over, so much so it makes me want to get hold of those other Wit Mahler recordings. I know what a dynamic yet thoughtful conductor he can be from loads of other Naxos discs, notably the Lutosławski and Penderecki series (perhaps understandable), his superb accompaniments for the Prokofiev and Rachmaninov concertos, to say nothing of his recent and universally praised Alpine Symphony.

All those recordings prove what a superb orchestral technician he is, coaxing playing of great virtuosity from a variety of ensembles but caring deeply about balance, texture and sonority. So it is with this Eighth, where one of the immediate delights is the welter of huge but controlled sound that bursts forth from the speakers, pinning you back with its force but never rushed or hard driven. In fact, I have to praise his choice of tempos throughout, fast enough to be exciting but never tipping over into a breakneck, hell-for-leather mess. The choral contribution is the other immediate delight, full-toned and resonant, never squally or vibrato-laden but tight, disciplined and, in fact, inspired. This ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ is, to quote Deryck Cooke, a ‘great confident shout to the skies’ but Wit always understands that this opening motif is the basic seed for the entire work and that this is a first movement allegro, not the climax. There is a whole symphony to go and Wit makes sure that we don’t get overkill too soon. This in turn means managing the many tricky gearshifts and tempo fluctuations, something he achieves with a consummate skill that is, to my ears, the most convincing since Tennstedt. The flow is never broken even when Mahler keeps slipping ‘etwas zögend’ (somewhat hesitating) or ‘nicht schleppend’ (not dragging) into the mix. The great double fugue that starts at ‘Ductore sic te praevio’ is thrilling, with every strand of the complex contrapuntal texture vital and crystal clear, but then that goes for the whole movement. The closing pages, from ‘Gloria Patri Domino’, where the overlapping choral entries are flung out like shooting stars, feel truly earned in this performance, and if Wit refuses to press on as quickly as Solti, it is no less exciting; indeed, it felt to me possibly even more noble and euphoric for holding its ground and resisting the temptation to spill over into the hysterical. It should also be mentioned here that the important organ part sounds naturally integrated into the whole sound spectrum rather than planted on later, as some versions suffer from.

The same goes for Part 2, whose opening prelude is as atmospheric as any I’ve heard, recorded or live. The orchestral playing has a luminous sheen, especially the strings, that is quite wonderful and keeping a steady pace brings out a wealth of textural detail, especially in the woodwind. Later Wit begins to move the pace on towards the scherzo section (women’s and boys’ voices) and thereafter builds an inexorable momentum that finds its natural release in ‘Alles Vergängliche’, true symphonically-shaped conducting rather than episode by episode.

The very special choral contribution has been mentioned and the soloists are not far behind. Timothy Bentch’s Doctor Marianus copes heroically with the cruel tessitura, still managing to shape the words and phrases more convincingly than some tenors. Of the sopranos Marta Boberska has the most radiant timbre but the others do not really disappoint, and only Piotr Novacki’s Pater Profundis has anything approaching a real wobble among the entire cast.

The engineers work miracles in capturing this whole spectacle with warmth, fullness and precision. Nothing is falsely highlighted, something you can’t quite say about the Solti, and this sound quality is easily the equal of Sinopoli’s beautifully recorded DG version. Talking of other performances, there’s no doubt the Solti holds a special place among classic Eighths, especially so now it is on one lower mid-price Decca disc. The Sinopoli comes on a DG twofer (with the Tenth Adagio) so is also cheap, as is the Tennstedt, currently coupled with No.4 as an EMI Great Recording of the Century. These have for a while been my personal benchmarks as I haven’t heard recent notable additions to the catalogue from Chailly and Rattle. If Naxos could just have squeezed this onto one disc (maybe just possible these days) this would have been a world-beater. As it is, it’s still exceptional value given the standard of the music-making on offer and serious Mahlerians really should hear it.

Tony Haywood


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