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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E flat major (1906) [85:16]
Magna Peccatrix: Twyla Robinson (soprano)
Una poenitentium: Erin Wall (soprano)
Mater gloriosa: Adriane Queiroz (soprano)
Mulier Samaritana: Michelle DeYoung (contralto)
Maria Aegyptiaca: Simone Schröder (contralto)
Doctor Marianus: Johan Botha (tenor)
Pater ecstaticus: Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone)
Pater profundus: Robert Holl (bass)
Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin/Eberhard Friedrich
Rundfunkchor Berlin/Simon Halsey
Aurelius Sängerknaben CALW/Eberhard Friedrich
Tobias Berndt (organ)
Staatskapelle Berlin/Pierre Boulez
rec. April 2007, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany.
Texts and translations provided
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6597 [23:44 + 61:32]

It’s hard to believe that Pierre Boulez, the avuncular figure with the bad comb-over, was one of the great musical iconoclasts of the 1960s. Equally difficult to grasp, perhaps, is the fact that he has been conducting Mahler for some time now, starting with his tenure at the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1971 to 1975. But his interest in the composer goes back even further than that; in an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung in January 2007 he admits to ‘discovering’ Mahler in 1958, mainly through the songs.
It’s only with this DG cycle – of which the 8th is the final instalment – that Boulez has gained wider recognition as a Mahler ‘interpreter’ - a description Boulez dislikes, preferring instead to see himself as a composer. Admittedly the DG recordings span a number of years and include various bands but there have been some very fine readings along the way, most notably the 6th Symphony (DG 445 8352) and the songs with Anne Sofie von Otter, Violeta Urmana and Thomas Quasthoff (DG 477 5329). These stand out as remarkable achievements and are worthy additions to the Mahler canon. The other symphonies are less distinguished and in some cases – the 2nd and 7th for instance – one might be tempted to think Boulez the composer gets in the way of the music, with readings that sacrifice warmth and structure  in favour of forensic detail.
But whatever one might feel about this cycle in general – and few, if any, are recommendable in their entirety – the composer’s eye does yield some wonderful insights, especially in the more chamber-like song settings. There Boulez finds great transparency and a limpid beauty that is utterly convincing. No doubt the Wiener Philharmoniker have something to do with that, as indeed they do in his blazing, trenchant reading of the 6th, a symphony in which Boulez has few rivals, let alone equals.
The penultimate recording in this cycle, the ‘Resurrection’, was a disappointment, not least because of its variable soloists. Perhaps Boulez is less convinced of the merits of the two ‘choral symphonies’ than, say the 6th and 9th. That’s not necessarily a criticism – after all Klemperer didn’t conduct them all – but the 2nd and 8th need rather more advocacy than most if they are to succeed.
Superficially at least these two symphonies have much in common, with their extended choral writing and final sublimation, not to mention their structural challenges. This recording of the 8th followed hard on the heels of a much-praised Berlin performance last April, the broadcast of which gave some idea of what to expect; broad, but not too much so, analytical without being clinical, a real sense of drama in Part I and some excellent choral singing. But even making allowances for the differences between a live performance and a recording the latter seems much less cogent or involving.
One of the major let downs in both the broadcast and recording must be the soloists, a rather ill-matched team who never really rise to the occasion. The men are perhaps more successful than the women – Michelle DeYoung’s vibrato is just as much a distraction here as it was in the Boulez ‘Resurrection’ – but that isn’t saying much. Curiously, the soloists aren’t particularly well blended in Antoni Wit’s surprisingly successful set (Naxos 8.550533-34 - see review) but then he seems to have a feel for the score’s ebb and flow that Boulez seems to miss.
That great first movement is all about ebb and flow. From the start of Hrabanus’s great hymn it’s clear there is much weight and drive in this reading, the choruses singing with great precision and bite. The organ sound, massive as it is, rather lacks body, which is a pity, but that’s more of a problem at the end of Part II. For their part the soloists don’t sound at all ‘possessed’ by the creative spirit, especially in ‘Imple superna gratia’ (track 2).
The choral contributions, though, are uniformly good, the soundstage nicely tiered with the choruses spread convincingly from left to right. For some reason Boulez soon puts on the dampers and the creative fire begins to dwindle. Where other conductors find a nervous energy Boulez seems to prefer a calmer, broader approach, which only serves to point up the soloists’ shortcomings. (Just listen to DeYoung’s unlovely contribution to ’Infirma nostri corporis’.) At that great surge, ‘Accende lumen sensibus’, the choruses do achieve a certain radiance, although there is little of the ecstasy that others divine at this point (and that strange, flat, organ sound doesn’t help matters much).
After the bitterness and the doubts the return of ‘Veni creator spiritus’ should also be much more thrilling than it is here. Boulez certainly doesn’t skimp on the volume but the reprise just doesn’t have the incandescence that Mahler surely demands (after all it is a work about creative regeneration, in part at least). Nor is the ‘Gloria sit Patri Domino’ as transported as it can be, although the timps and lower brass are admirably presented. The choruses are the real stars here – how clear their diction, how focused their sound – so it’s all the more disappointing that the close of Part I doesn’t blaze with the intensity of, say, Tennstedt (EMI 3615722) or Solti (in his Decca Legends set 460 972-2).
It’s not just about weight and thrust, of course. Boulez seems to see this music as a precursor to Berg rather than a throwback to the 19th century. In that sense he finds a marvellous poise and transparency in the Faust setting in Part II, especially in the Poco adagio. Rarely has this music sounded so diaphanous. The Staatskapelle Berlin play with real unanimity, their every note and nuance clearly audible. So how does Boulez manage to make this music sound so frigid, so detached? Other conductors find an ethereal ‘otherness’ here without sacrificing overall warmth (Wit especially, with some unexpected sonorities).
Full marks to the two choruses, who manage to combine clarity with a modicum of mystery and wonder. Hanno Müller-Brachmann is a secure if not particularly characterful Pater ectaticus in ‘Ewiger Wonnebrand’, but Robert Holl’s Pater profundus is much less steady. Johan Botha acquits himself well as Doctor Marianus, firm and ardent, while Erin Wall’s Una poenitentium is suitably rapt. The DG engineers capture some gorgeous sounds – listen to the harps in track 11 – but all too often there is a sense of stasis that robs the music of its essential drive and energy.
There are moments when the flame is fanned into life – the boys of the Aurelius choir are appealingly fresh and vigorous in track 14 – but Boulez does his usual party trick and brings the music to a standstill once more. Only at the Mater gloriosa’s invocation ‘Komm!  Hebe dich zu höhern Sphären!’ does the pace pick up again but by then one might be forgiven for thinking the movement is beyond repair.
Jascha Horenstein’s classic 1958 account with the LSO and a fine array of soloists (BBC Legends BBCL 4001-7) has an unmatched sense of symphonic logic, of inevitability, that is just remarkable to behold. The way he unerringly builds towards that great climax makes Boulez seem positively soporific by comparison. That said the Berlin choruses take the honours again with some incandescent singing at the close; what a shame that Boulez makes the final peroration sound hopelessly overextended, bombastic even.
Few performances of this great score are totally without merit but, goodness, this comes close. As the final instalment in Boulez’s Mahler cycle this could scarcely be more disappointing. Indeed, it is the kind of performance that gives the nay-sayers – of which there are many – reason to dismiss all Mahler’s music as incoherent and overblown.
If you are looking for a good performance of the 8th there are plenty to choose from, all much more satisfying in their different ways. The Solti/Chicago set is essential (even if the sound is crudely compressed at times), as is the wayward but visceral Bernstein with the LSO on Sony Classics 517493 2. Of more recent accounts the Wit is an excellent bargain; even more so is Michael Gielen’s single-disc version recorded at the re-opening of the Alte Oper, Frankfurt, in 1981 (Sony SBK48281).
But for something uniquely inspiring Horenstein’s live Albert Hall performance – almost fifty years old but in excellent, atmospheric stereo – has all the drama, intensity, intoxication and spiritual grandeur you could possibly want. Now that’s what this score is all about.
Dan Morgan


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