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Gustav MAHLER (1860 – 1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E flat “Symphony of a Thousand” (1910)
Christine Brewer (soprano) - Magna Peccatrix
Soile Isokoski (soprano) - Una Poenitentium
Julian Banse (soprano) - Mater Gloriosa
Birgit Remmert (mezzo) - Mulier Samaritana
Jane Henschel (mezzo) - Maria Aegyptiaca
Jon Villars (tenor) - Doctor Marianus
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone) - Pater Ecstaticus
John Relyea (bass) - Pater Profundus
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus/Simon Halsey
London Symphony Chorus/Joseph Cullen
City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus/Shirley Court
Toronto Children's Chorus/Jean Ashworth Bartle
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 5, 8, 9 June 2004. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 2285292 [77.36]
Experience Classicsonline

There is a saying that it is easier to get the proverbial camel through the eye of a needle than it is to get Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 onto disk. Many have tried and there are over two dozen recordings in the current catalogue. Many have failed – some only just missing the mark. With such strong competition any recording has to meet exacting standards.
I have had something of an obsession with this work ever since I first heard it on the radio and LP in the 1970s. I experienced my first live Prom performance in the early 1980s and performed it as a chorus member in the 1990s. It is a huge undertaking and the music ranges from the most earth-shattering fortissimos to the chamber music intimacy of just two or three instruments. In fact, when you look at the score it is amazing the number of times Mahler calls for small forces. This produces a myriad problems for the engineers. Judgments have to be made which affect the finished result and which can make or break the end product. Recording live, as we have here, creates a further problem of getting the balance right where there is no opportunity to have a second or third ‘take’ if a mistake is made.
The symphony is divided into two parts which are generally accepted as forming the four movements of the classical symphony. The first part represents the standard sonata-form opening movement, with the second part comprising the slow movement, scherzo and finale. The text for the first part is the hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus by Hrabanus Maurus, the ninth-century archbishop of Mainz, and for the second part the final scene from Goethe’s Faust. These are not such a disparate choice as they both deal with redemption, and Mahler also links them using musical themes.
The present recording is a re-issue of the one first seen in 2005. It captures a live concerts given in Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Drawing on more than one performance gave engineers the chance to use sections from each to iron out any errors. Going by the absence of applause at the end I wonder if some of this was done when there was no audience present – during rehearsals perhaps.
The opening section is marked Allegro Impetuoso and starts with an E flat chord on the organ and a great shout of Veni, creator spiritus from the choirs. The tempo chosen by Rattle gives great impetus which is fitting for the start of what is a classically proportioned symphony. The combined choirs have a solid sound and carry the music forward making all the details tell. This leads to the second subject and to the words Imple superma gratia which introduces the soloists. Rattle has a splendid team led by Christine Brewer. In this first part they must work as an integrated team and this is where many recordings fail. The writing for the tenor is often particularly high in the voice when others are low in theirs; indeed, at some points he is higher in real pitch than the two altos. If he is not careful he can become too prominent. Jon Villars seems acutely aware of this problem but overcompensates and sometimes disappears from view. In spite of this small failing, they all acquit themselves well and have a good sense of ensemble which carries us to the central development section. This is pushed forward with the choirs ploughing through the double fugue and arriving at the thrilling climax of the Veni, creator spiritus of the opening. This marks the start of the recapitulation. Sometimes this section can lose its urgency and become flaccid causing the movement to ‘sag’ just when it needs to be kept bright and alive. Rattle and his forces never lose sight of the structure and keep this impetus right up to the final Gloria section. This is, I think, the section Mahler was referring to when he said that it was no longer human voices but planets and suns revolving. The final pages fly into the stratosphere, with the offstage brass pealing out, and the emphatic E flat chord from choirs and orchestra bringing a triumphant end to the first part of the symphony.
Comparisons with other live recordings are interesting. Kent Nagano with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester in Berlin (Harmonia Mundi), does not have as good a team of soloists. Sopranos, Sylvia Greenberg and Lynne Dawson both seem over-parted and the tenor (Robert Gambill) trying to hone down his voice gives a strained, pinched quality to the sound. Nagano also has an irritating habit of slowing into nearly every cadence, which may be appropriate sometimes, but in this work becomes a mannerism not in keeping with a classical first movement format.
Colin Davis with the Bavarian Radio forces (RCA) has a more reverberant acoustic but this leads to a more distant sound. This results in a loss of the impact and the thrills of this movement from the choirs. He is also hampered by soloists who don’t sing quietly when required – many entries marked pp are sung at a good healthy forte. Having two ‘Turandots’ as sopranos (Alessandra Marc and Sharon Sweet) means that in the very loud passages they are heard clearly, but in the introspective ones the sound is just too full. This fault is not just restricted to the sopranos either.
The earliest stereo recording I have is the BBC one from 1959 with Jascha Horenstein conducting (BBC Legends), what was then very unfamiliar music, in the Royal Albert Hall in London. This venue gives its own aura to any large-scale performance. You can feel the adrenaline flowing within the performers who are, for the most part, in uncharted territory. Horenstein gives a luminous interpretation of this first movement with the only blot on the landscape being the tenor soloist’s wrong entry just before figure 36 where he is one bar late. However, the recording is marred by the audience coughing which is intrusive in places.
The ‘touchstone’, to my mind, is the studio recording by Solti (Decca). He has the benefit of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Viennese choirs, and a first rate team of soloists headed by the sopranos Heather Harper and Lucia Popp. The venue is the Sofiensaal in Vienna. This first part has an architecture skilfully crafted by Solti - who is sometimes criticised for driving music too hard - whose extrovert manner suits this magnificent music. The adrenaline rush is just as evident as it is in the Horenstein. The CD, however, has a much brighter sound than the original LPs.
And so on to the more diverse and difficult to bring off second part. In this the soloists are required to portray individual characters in the final scene from Goethe’s Faust. There Faust’s immortal soul is transported heavenward and saved by the ‘Eternal feminine’.
The first section is the equivalent of the classical symphony slow movement and begins with an orchestral introduction depicting wilderness, mountains, forests, gorges and finally we hear anchorites scattered about the scene. Mahler uses the theme first heard in Part 1 to the words Acende lumens sensibus, but here it is played quietly by pizzicato basses. Above this the woodwind weave among themselves. The conductor who follows Mahler’s dynamic markings makes the best effect; there are fortissimo markings for individual instruments (oboe here and clarinet there) set against pianissimo chords from the rest of the wind section. Rattle is better than most here with nice differentiation of the dynamics. Nagano is better, but the slowing down for each cadence is well evident again. The chorus of anchorites is well spread across the stereo spectrum for the echo effects, with a nice balance at Ehren geweihten Ort – one of the magical moments in this score.
The first soloist is the baritone with a short solo as Pater Ecstaticus. David Wilson-Johnson is one of the best in this passage and is certainly better than John Shirley-Quirk for Solti whose covered tone distorts the words. Davis has Sergei Leiferkus who is much freer in his highest register. Nagano is so slow in this that his baritone does struggle. This is followed by the bass John Relyea as Pater Profundus who sings firm sound and deliver good pointing of the text. However, Solti has the best of the singers with Martti Talvela.
This leads to what can be described as the Scherzo of the symphony. The various combinations of choirs take the parts of various angels, singing with refreshingly light tone. There isn’t much between the choirs on the other recordings and all do justice to this music. The tenor Jon Villars as Doctor Marianus emerges from the choirs for his difficult solo. He sounds rather rushed at first, but soon settles down, the only problem being that the tone sounds tight in the higher register. Of all the tenors on these recordings only Rene Kollo for Solti sounds anywhere near at ease.
This takes us into the Finale proper and to one of the most sublime moments of this symphony – the appearance of Mater Gloriosa to a melody of such sweetness that it is hard to imagine anyone not doing it justice. It starts with violins accompanied by harmonium and harp. Rattle is quite sublime in this with the strings playing with superb tone. As with Solti, a judicious tempo that has a ‘right’ feel about it. Nagano is so slow that the music is in danger of grinding to a halt which ruins the atmosphere he is trying so hard to create.
The next section is for the three penitent women (Magna Peccatrix, Mulier Samaritana and Maria Aegyptiaca) the three ladies here make a splendid trio singing with sensitivity and grace. Soile Isokoski as Una Poenitentium is luxury casting and she gives a delightful rendition of this solo part, second only to Solti’s Lucia Popp who is, I believe, unsurpassed in this. In the other recordings the tempo is slow and the singers are placed under difficulties by this. Nagano’s Lynne Dawson is so stretched by Una Poenitentium that it makes uncomfortable listening. Finally, we come to Mater Gloriosa. Solti has the best of the singers with Arleen Auger, but all the recordings do well with this solo which lasts all of 25 bars.
Doctor Marianus with the choirs takes us to a thrilling climax which melts into the final coda, started by all the choirs singing ppp – a magical effect enhanced by the fact that the basses of the choirs descend from a bottom E flat down to the B flat below the bass stave. The choirs for Rattle achieve a homogeneous sound setting the right atmosphere for the first soprano to soar up to a high C with ease. I have heard this passage sung by a world famous soprano where her tone was so acid I’m sure it would peel the paint off the woodwork! So, full marks to Christine Brewer. The sound builds from there to an earth-shattering climax on the words Das ewig Weibliche zeit uns hinan ‘The ever feminine leads us onward’ and an orchestral postlude which, I’m sure, raised the roof of Symphony Hall.
This current recording is a superb rendition of a great masterpiece well captured by the engineers. Rattle is handsomely served by his soloists, choirs and orchestra and his interpretation is among the best around; he has an innate sense of the sweep of the piece which he carries to the very last bars. Of the recordings I have used to compare, Nagano, although also well recorded, is spoiled by his self-conscious slowing into cadences and very second rate singing from the soloists. Davis is hampered by soloists who are too loud - or microphone placement which is too close, perhaps. The Horenstein is really only for those who want a record of what must have been a momentous occasion – fine though the performance is. The Solti recording remains the one to be reckoned with, but Rattle runs it very close and I wouldn’t want to be without either.
The booklet has an essay about the symphony, a cast list, and track-listing but no text or translations.
Arther Smith

see also reviews by John Quinn and Tony Duggan of the original release (5579452)


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