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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E flat major (1906-7) [75:43]
(Hymnus: Veni, creator spiritus [22:30]; *Final Scene from Faust [53:13])
Ileana Cotrubas (soprano 1, *Magna Peccatrix)
Heather Harper (soprano 2, *Una Poenitentium)
Hanneke van Bork (*Mater Gloriosa, soprano)
Birgit Finnila (contralto 1, *Mulier Samaritana)
Marianne Dieleman (contralto 2, *Maria Aegyptiaca)
William Cochran (tenor, *Doctor Marianus)
Hermann Prey (baritone, *Pater Estaticus)
Hans Sotin (bass, *Pater Profundus)
Toonkunstkoor, Amsterdam; De Stem des Volks, Amsterdam; Collegium Musicum Amstelodamense; Childrenís Choirs of the Churches of St. Willibrord and St. Pius X, Amsterdam
Jo Juda (violin solo); Kees de Wijs (organ)
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam September 1971. ADD
PENTATONE PTC 5186 166 [75:43]

 

Although Symphony of a Thousand is a marketing title not authorized by Mahler, matters technical are a key concern in the performance of Mahlerís eighth symphony. In 1971 Philips recorded it quadraphonically. But because standard - and therefore widespread and viable - home reproducing equipment was never established, the recording was only issued in stereo - until this issue in SACD in Pentatoneís Remastered Quadro Recordings series. To retain the integrity of the original, only four channels - two front and two rear - are used. The question is does this significantly enhance the listening experience? Is it worth getting this version even if you have the stereo?

I compared this Pentatone release with the stereo reissue I have in Haitinkís box set of complete Mahler symphonies (Philips 4420502), the only form in which itís currently available. The stereo version has the two choirs clearly separated and is smoothly balanced but is a touch strident in the heavily scored passages, of which there are plenty in the opening hymn.

This Pentatone SACD is altogether more spacious and glowing, clear and thrilling in effect and with greater body. The fortissimo passages have considerably more impact, particularly those special occasions such as the return of the hymn opening (tr. 5, 4:58) when all sing or play fortissimo. Those separately stationed four trumpets and three trombones added at the climaxes of both parts (trs. 7, 2:53 and 21, 4:00) provide a visceral sound boost I havenít heard on recordings before. The Concertgebouw acoustic is more recognisable. Itís more like being there. The transfer is also very smooth: the recording wears its years lightly. I didnít notice any tape hiss. So if you like the interpretation itís definitely worth getting this SACD. It remains, nevertheless, clearly a recording of analogue origin. The sound is bright but not astringent, clean textured and truthful to Haitinkís analytical care in revealing orchestration. But if you want a rich bass - which I donít - youíll be disappointed.

You might wonder if the CD layer of this Pentatone hybrid sounds better than the Philips original. Iíd say itís slightly smoother, less glaring and has a touch more perspective. But these are marginal differences in comparison with the SACD impact.

Part 1 of this symphony is a setting of the 9th century Latin hymn Veni, creator spiritus. Haitink begins in an eager and welcoming, heroic, even bouncy manner. The first section for soloists, ĎImple superna gratiaí (tr. 2) establishes that their approach will be lyrical and ardent, especially the first soprano, Ileana Cotrubas. At ĎInfirma nostra corporisí (tr. 3) and the change of key to D minor comes a murkier, softer chorus and spooky violin solo, whereupon the two soprano soloistsí entry, softer still, at ĎVirtute firmus perpetií (1:27) is yet more phantasmagoric.

The key moment, the change to E major and mass chorusesí acclamation ĎAccende lumen sensibusí (tr. 5), is precipitous, the pause marked after the first ĎAcí barely felt. The march at ĎHostem repellasí (1:08) is starkly dramatic with screaming high notes tailing phrases, the ensuing double fugue rigorous yet also with something of exciting abandon about it. I was struck by the overall sense of spontaneity and commitment. The Gloria (tr. 7) is one expansive euphoric parade with all the stops thrillingly out at the end.

Part 2 is the final scene from Goetheís Faust Part II. In the orchestral introduction Haitink gets a keen sense of atmosphere from the clarity of the opening soft cymbal stroke, the tingling tremolando strings and high woodwind tessitura, clarinet especially. This really is a new and uncertain environment; but the cellosí warmth (tr. 8 1:18), supported by the hornsí response, is more memorable and comforting than the thrashing about of the elements which follow.

Groping choruses (tr. 10) portray anchorites pretty cowed by all this. So itís good that Hermann Prey brings both lyrical ardour and edge to the Pater Estaticusí plea (tr. 11) for eternal love with eloquent orchestral backing from Haitink. Hans Sotin has a more difficult task in the tortured nature of Pater Profundusí plea (tr. 12), graphically aware of storm and stress, but having less momentous impact than Haitink.

At this moment Faustís soul is borne up by angels and the significance of that earlier cellosí and hornsí warmth becomes clear. These particular angels (tr. 13) are an eager lot and the blessed boys (0:25) have an appropriate raw directness. The female younger angels (tr. 14) then make a smooth, if somewhat soporific contrast. But theyíre just a foil for the more perfect angels (tr. 15) in a suddenly hushed, hazy, incense-like and holy atmosphere in which the orchestration, opening with viola and violin solos, has suddenly become wonderfully transparent. Grafted on this at 0:58 comes a lovely, full-toned and emotive contralto solo, I presume from Birgit Finnila.

Now (tr. 16) Haitink reveals a starry orchestral backcloth for the younger angels and the entrance of Doctor Marianus. William Cochran has fitting refinement and lyricism if not much power, so itís good the recording provides ample space around him. The entrance of the Virgin Mary (tr. 17) is sublimely achieved by Haitink. The glowing sound of the harmonium, not heard before, the tender strings with some delicate portamento, both as indicated in the score (e.g. 0:40, 1:04) and appropriate additions (e.g. 0:18, 0:32).

Enter the three women to plead for Faustís soul (tr. 18). Ileana Cotrubasís Magna Peccatrix has a pleasingly airy, relaxed ardour. Birgit Finnilaís Samaritan Woman is darker and more emotive. Thereís a sinewy dramatic quality to Marianne Dielemanís Egyptian Woman. Good to have contrast, while Cotrubas supplies the cream in their trio.

Another previously unheard instrument, the mandolin (tr. 18 from 5:10), also clearer than ever in this re-mastering, makes a suitable backcloth to the bright, eager witness of Heather Harperís Penitent, a mood immediately caught by the boysí choir and the orchestra which also becomes more animated. Hanneke van Borkís response as the Virgin (tr. 19, 3:08) is positive as well as ethereal and Doctor Marianusís prayer (tr. 20) spirited, whereupon orchestra and choruses open out in waves of ecstatic sound. Equally effective is from 4:41 the melting into the cool douche of flute and piccolo, rippling celesta and piano over harmonium.

As Faustís soul and all the witnesses are drawn towards heaven, the closing Mystic Chorus (tr. 21) begins raptly but you sense it will also open out. In the mean-time, from 1:49 enjoy a lovely, appropriately chaste top C and B flat from Cotrubas, answered by B flats from Harper. Then prepare yourself for an overwhelming emotional and sonic experience which is the final chorus and orchestral postlude, here a spectacular blaze of sound, but difficult to enjoy to the full if you have near neighbours.

For comparison I turned to the most famous and renowned analogue recording, that made by Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Georg Solti in the same month in 1971 (Decca 4757521). Soltiís recording sounds more strident, the orchestra less prominent, two channels resulting in less clarity and density than four. Soltiís approach is more operatic, worldly, the chorus more lusty and rugged, the voices with more vibrato. This matches his more colourful realization of Mahlerís orchestration, whose Ďeffectsí are more dramatic. Solti relishes the moment more vividly, Haitink relates it more farsightedly to the whole and accordingly has more of a visionary quality. Haitink doesnít have the charisma of Solti, but this four channel release for me secures him an equal distinctiveness.

In Part 1 that key moment at ĎAccende lumen sensibusí is realized more vividly by Solti because the pause after ĎAcí is more marked and the following march is of an even more highly charged fervour which approaches mass hysteria. Soltiís contrasts of tempo are more dynamic and apparent. This is why Soltiís timings are a little slower. His Part 1 takes 23:43 against Haitinkís 22:30. In Part 2 the respective timings are 56:21 and 53:13. Haitinkís tempi are subtler and seem more natural.

Soltiís orchestral introduction to Part 2 is more graphic and seems packed with more incident and dramatic shading, but his high woodwind donít have as piercingly distinctive a sonority as Haitinkís. His anchorites are more wooden and throughout his boysí choir more polite. Against Soltiís blazing orchestral backcloth John Shirley-Quirkís Pater Estaticus needs a more valorous ardour than Preyís greater naturalness, but Martti Talvelaís Pater Profundus has more dramatic and emotional impact than Hans Sotin. The same might be said of René Kolloís Doctor Marianus, who is a touch less lyrical but projects more successfully than William Cochran.

Soltiís strings depicting the entrance of the Virgin Mary are rather sugary, but his three women make an animated trio, while Lucia Poppís Penitent, light yet comely, shows more character than Heather Harper. Arleen Augérís Virgin is more otherworldly than Hanneke van Bork. René Kollo is magnificently rapturous in Dr Marianusí prayer, backed by a stirring chorus. Solti achieves a haunting pearly stillness before the Mystic Chorus which is at first rather fuzzy, though better at its full-throated climax. His soprano soloistsí high notes arenít as telling as Haitinkís.

Iíd say honours are pretty even between Solti and Haitink. I feel Mahlerís head would have appreciated Haitinkís more spiritual approach while his heart would have relished Soltiís barnstorming. Iím happy to have both, but if forced to choose would go for Haitink. And in four channels he now has the significantly better recording.

In the present Pentatone Haitink release some minor deficiencies have been replicated from its Philips predecessor. There are no sung texts or translations. Reasonable for a budget box, unreasonable for a full price single CD. Pater Estaticus is called Doctor. The orchestra which recorded this work in 1971 did not become the Royal Concertgebouw until 1988. And Pentatone has added a fresh error of its own. The total timing is given as 70:45. Fortunately this remastering hasnít lopped off 5 minutes!

Niggles over. Haitinkís always finely considered, spiritually focussed interpretation has been given an impressive new lease of life in four channels.

Michael Greenhalgh


 



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