Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E flat (1907)
Christine Brewer (soprano) - Magna Peccatrix;
Soile Isokoski (soprano) - Una Pœnitentium;
Juliane 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; London Symphony Chorus; City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus; Toronto Children’s Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, Symphony Hall, Birmingham: 5, 8, 9 June 2004. DDD
Texts and translations not included – available online.
EMI CLASSICS MASTERS 50999 631790 2 [77:36]

This reissue is very easy to review. It’s one of the most recent offerings in the EMI Masters series, having been recorded live in 2004, though without applause. First released in 2005, it achieved the accolade Recording of the Month from John Quinn, though Tony Duggan was less impressed – see joint review. The weight of opinion has since been that this is one of the greatest renditions of the so-called ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ and I see no reason to demur. The fact that it reappeared so quickly, first on the EMI Recommends label and now here, in no way reflects on the quality: to have this culmination of Rattle’s Mahler returned to us so soon and so inexpensively is very good news indeed.
This is by a small margin the fastest of the three main current versions of the Symphony on a single CD: Solti (Decca), Gergiev (LSO Live, SACD) and Rattle, and all are on offer at less than full price – Solti on Decca Originals (475 7521, around £8.50) Gergiev on LSO Live (LSO0669, around £7) and Rattle at around £6. All three are preferable to Michael Gielen’s recording, which used to be the only Eighth on a single CD (Sony SBK48281 – no longer available). I sang the praises of the Solti in my July 2009 Download Roundup.
I was in two minds about Gergiev’s Mahler Sixth and Seventh Symphonies which had admirers and detractors in about equal measure – I haven’t heard his Eighth. His recording is offered in SACD. Both are recorded live, Gergiev in St Paul’s, Rattle in Birmingham. I doubt if even SACD could improve on EMI’s splendid sound for Rattle, unless you must have the surround channels. Decca’s ADD recording for Solti still holds its own very well, too. I hardly think that the EMI will have needed re-mastering, though the CD has a new matrix number.
Rattle drives some of the tempi very hard, even undercutting Solti in places in Part I, but just listening to the poco adagio opening of Part II (track 9) shows that he is also capable of great delicacy. Overall I thought his tempi well chosen, whereas his recording of the Second, (‘Resurrection’) Symphony drags a little by comparison with Klemperer, both on EMI Great Recordings. Believe it or not, but Klemperer was a speed merchant before his final decade and he fits the Resurrection on one CD (just) where Rattle runs to a second. The Rattle who recorded the Eighth sounds to me more like Klemperer in his heyday. Neither Rattle nor Solti is as fast as Gielen’s live performance on Sony, which often sounds rushed at 72:10 overall.
Both teams of soloists are out of the top drawer: for Rattle the likes of Christine Brewer, whose role in the new Chandos recording of Ariadne on Naxos is the chief recommendation of that set for me (CHAN3168), and Soile Isokoski, whose Sibelius Orchestral Songs on Ondine are out of this world (ODE1080-5) and whose Strauss Four Last Songs (ODE982-2) even challenge Schwarzkopf’s ascendancy (EMI Masters 9659412: Bargain of the Month – see review). On the Solti recording we have the likes of Arleen Auger, Lucia Popp and René Kollo. Choice between two such excellent teams – not a single weakness in either – is well-nigh impossible. The chorus and orchestra on both recordings also give of their very best.
I’ve already praised the quality of the EMI and Decca recordings. Ultimately, if forced to choose, I guess that I’d still opt for Solti by a very small margin, but please refer to Tony Duggan’s rather less enthusiastic view of that recording here. For me it would ultimately be tiny considerations that come into play in deciding. Decca Originals usually come with full texts and translations and I presume that the Solti recording does so, too – my current copy of this recording was downloaded from Passionato, so I’m not certain. The Rattle reissue is devoid of these – you have to go online for them. That’s no hardship for me – I’ve known the texts of the Veni Creator Spiritus and the relevant parts of Goethe’s Faust longer than I can remember – but it is at least a nuisance for most potential listeners. Even the super-budget Gielen came with texts and translations.
For what it’s worth, there are rather more tracks on the EMI than on the Decca recording. Whether any of that persuades you that the Solti is worth paying a little more, only you can decide. Incidentally, beware of what you order: some dealers still have the EMI Recommends version – no problem, since it’s about the same price as the EMI Masters – and also the original full-price issue, at twice the price.
The EMI reissue comes with just two-and-a-third pages of notes, which is adequate, though I could have wished for more. The usual stylish EMI Masters cover rounds off an attractive reissue.
This is a top-drawer reissue of Mahler’s most imposing symphony. If I marginally prefer the Second (Resurrection) and Das Lied von der Erde (his real Ninth Symphony), the Eighth must also rank high in the pantheon and this reissue is one of the best – and least expensive – ways to obtain it. Having played the CD once, I had to play it all over again.
Brian Wilson
Vies with Solti for the top recommendation.