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MAHLER (1860 – 1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E flat “Symphony of a Thousand” (1910)
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
booklet has an essay about the symphony, a cast list, and
track-listing but no text or translations.
see also reviews by John
Quinn and Tony Duggan of the original
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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