Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E flat major Symphony of A Thousand (1906) [81:55]
Pater Profundus - Askar Abdrazakov and Alfred Muff (basses)
Doctor Marianus - Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor)
Maria Aegyptica - Birgit Remmert (mezzo)
Mater Gloriosa - Lisa Larsson (soprano)
Una Poenitentium - Juliane Banse (soprano)
Mulier Samaritana - Yvonne Naef (mezzo)
Magna Peccatrix - Melanie Diener (soprano)
Pater Ecstaticus - Stephen Powell (baritone)
Schweizer Kammerchor/Fritz Näf (rehearsal)
WDR Rundfunkchor Köln/Robert Blank (rehearsal)
Zürcher Sängerknaben/Konrad von Aarburg (rehearsal)
Kinderchor Kaltbrunn/Daniel Winiger (rehearsal)
Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra/David Zinman
rec. 27 February-3 March 2009, Tonhalle, Zurich, Switzerland. Texts included
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 88697 57926 2 [24:25 + 57:30]

At last, David Zinman’s long-awaited Mahler Eighth has arrived. His has been a most rewarding cycle so far; indeed, the Second, Fourth and Fifth are among the finest I’ve heard in recent years. I was slightly less enthusiastic about the First and Third, but there is still much to enjoy in those readings. The Sixth and Seventh strike me as the least successful of the lot, with Zinman less surefooted in these more precipitous scores. Again, though, the freshness and transparency he brings to these symphonies is wholly admirable, and the benefits in terms of clarity, colour and line can outweigh minor structural issues.

Speaking of which I’ve found the most successful Eighths demand a conductor with a long view, one with a sure sense of the music’s final destination and, in Part II, an ability to sustain momentum and pulse. There are many fine Mahler Eighths out there, from Bernstein in the 1960s (CBS/Sony) through to classic Solti in the 1970s (Decca), Tennstedt in the 1980s (EMI), Gielen in 1992 and 2001 (Sony and Hänssler) and, most recently, Antoni Wit on Naxos. The latter was something of a revelation, Wit combining all - or most - of those essential qualities in a recording of real thrust and power. To my mind that’s a much more compelling and coherent performance than Boulez on DG - review - which, for all its starry credentials, is only sporadically successful overall.

The choruses and soloists who play such a pivotal role in this work need to be well drilled and blended. In the main the recordings I’ve mentioned work well in that regard, although there are inevitable caveats about certain solos and choral balances. I’m inclined to be more forgiving of such lapses if the overall thrust and shape of this symphony is properly managed, so that when the finale hoves into view there’s a thrilling sense of musical and emotional catharsis. But it must be carefully prepared for, one musical and dramatic peak after another, and that’s often where performances of the Eighth come unstuck.

One recording I haven’t mentioned so far is the famous Horenstein/LSO version from 1959 (BBC Legends). Of the many recordings and live performances I’ve heard over the years this holds a special place in my affections. For starters it has all the tension and risk-taking that come with a live performance - and the fluffs - but any criticisms are simply swept away by the majesty and power of this classic reading. What’s more, the BBC engineers surpassed themselves with a recording of astonishing depth and detail. Mandatory listening for all Mahlerians, I’d say, and a reminder of just how high the bar has been set for this symphony.

In Zinman’s hands the opening hymn has plenty of weight, the organ very much in evidence. True, there may be less impetuoso than usual here, but as the work unfolds it becomes clear Zinman has opted for a broad, rather measured, view of this music, with tempi adjusted accordingly. In ‘Imple superna gratia’ the soloists aren’t as focused as they need to be - more on that later - although the bells are nicely caught and the organ adds to the well-upholstered sound. And that’s a real disappointment; after producing seven airy, spacious and finely detailed recordings in the cycle so far, the RCA engineers have come up with a close, rather diffuse sound for the Eighth.

At Tempo I Zinman’s tempi become more of an issue; yes, Mahler does write ‘ohne hastig’, but this is just too ponderous for my tastes. And in the ‘Accende lumen sensibus’ I missed that initial orchestral flare, just before Mahler really turns up the wick and the choruses take flame. I also missed the sense of breadth and width that the best Eighths convey, and I did begin to wonder whether the forces here assembled proved too much for the Tonhalle. That might explain the narrow soundstage and the lack of air in this recording, noticeable on both the CD and SACD layers. So, when the opening hymn returns it sounds congested and rather joyless.

The boys’ splendid singing in ‘Gloria Patri Domino’ certainly lifted my spirits a little. The timps are just superb here, the organ a powerful, pulsing presence. And at last there’s real radiance at the close. But this all comes at a cost, the general lethargy of this performance making the climaxes seem overheated by comparison. I began to wonder just how Zinman was going to navigate the literal and metaphorical peaks and valleys of Part II. Wit is very persuasive here, and there’s a wonderfully rapt quality to his reading as well.

Zinman’s Part II starts well enough, but it’s clear there’s little of the mystery that others find at this point. On the plus side, Zinman does uncover the loveliest colours and teases out all kinds of instrumental nuances. These are qualities I admire in the rest of his cycle, but this time round that accompanying lightness of touch seems to have deserted him. That said, there is plenty of urgency and amplitude in the Più mosso section, the Zurich band playing with commendable passion and bite, the lower brass suitably sonorous. After that the chorus and echo section - ‘Waldung, sie schwankt heran’ - seems a touch prosaic, even contrived, adding to the growing sense that Part II is going to be just as uneven - and frustrating - as Part I.

This movement is just too fragmented for my tastes, a series of discrete tableaux rather than a meticulously organised symphonic whole. The soloists aren’t terribly focused either; they don’t give the impression they’re listening to each other and singing as a close-knit team. Stephen Powell’s Pater Ecstaticus is reasonably well sung, although he does struggle under pressure, and the Pater Profundus - shared between Askar Abdrazakov and Alfred Muff - isn’t very well projected. Zinman’s mannered phrasing and slow tempi cause real problems for these soloists, who have to resort to a Wagnerian bark rather than cultivate a smoother vocal line. Thank heavens for the angelic choirs, who give this broken-backed performance a much-needed lift.

Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey’s ‘Höchste Herrscherin der Welt!’ comes across as rather plaintive, his voice marred by a distracting beat. There’s some soothing balm in the gorgeous harp figures of ‘Dir, der Unberührbaren’. Oh, if only this performance were so beguiling all the time. As for the women, Juliane Banse’s Una Poenitentium has plenty of reach and Melanie Diener’s Magna Peccatrix is fine, but Yvonne Naef’s Mulier Samaritana is much too uneven. There are times when vocal shortcomings might be less of an issue; for instance, Wit’s soloists aren’t A-listers, but the overall sweep and surge of his reading is such that it hardly matters. In Zinman’s case sluggish tempi - and the close recording - leave the singers cruelly exposed.

Doctor Marianus’s commanding ‘Blicket auf’ should arrive as if on the crest of a deep swell that soon breaks as a great wave in the symphony’s closing pages. Sadly, it’s no such thing; but since the undertow that usually propels us towards the shore is missing from this performance, that’s hardly surprising. The choruses acquit themselves very well at the close, the organ, tam tam and cymbals simply magnificent. this is one of Mahler’s most overwhelming finales and, in fairness to Zinman and his crew, they bring it off rather well.

Perhaps when a recording is as eagerly awaited as this any sense of disappointment is bound to be magnified. And I can’t tell you how underwhelmed I am by this new Eighth; that it fails in so many ways - musically, dramatically, sonically - is cause for regret, especially when Zinman’s earlier recordings hinted at a great Mahler cycle in the making. True, few conductors are equally successful in all the symphonies, and at least the Ninth, Tenth and Das Lied von der Erde are still to come.

Ever the optimist, all I can say is onward the Ninth!

Dan Morgan