Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 Symphony of a Thousand (1906)
Erika Sunnegardh (soprano); Ricarda Merbeth (soprano); Christiane Oelze (soprano); Lioba Braun (alto); Gerhild Romberger (alto); Stephen Gould (tenor); Dietrich Henschel (baritone); Georg Zeppenfeld (bass)
MDR Rundfunkchor; Chor der Oper Leipzig; GewandhausChor; Thomanerchor Leipzig; GewandhausKinderchor
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Riccardo Chailly
Director: Michael Beyer
Picture: 16:9, full HD
Sound: PCM stereo, dts Master Audio Surround 5.1
Region: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: German, English, French
rec. live, 26-27 May 2011, Gewandhaus zu Leipzig
ACCENTUS BLU-RAY ACC 10222 [92:19]
If two Mahler centenaries in quick succession has left you maxed out – financially and figuratively – then you have my sympathy. On the verge of overload myself, I approached Chailly’s recent Mahler 2 – also filmed at the 2011 Leipzig Mahlerfest – with trepidation, only to be elated and enthralled by it (review). As I suggested there, Chailly’s Mahler cycle on CD is lacklustre, and while his Leipzig ‘Resurrection’ may just warrant the epithet ‘old fashioned’ it’s anything but dull; indeed, it’s cogently argued, immaculately played and sung, and it realises – in full – the visual and sonic potential of Blu-ray.

There are so many reefs on which the Eighth can founder, from the propulsive first movement to the long, finely spun narrative of Part II, with its encircling choirs and lofty solos. Scanning the list of singers, I’m pleased to see Christiane Oelze – who made a good impression in Chailly’s Mahler 2 – and Lioba Braun, whose ‘Urlicht’ for Jonathan Nott is a highlight of that Super Audio set (review). The men look promising enough, Georg Zeppenfeld familiar from Christian Thielemann’s Beethoven Nine on C-Major DVD and Blu-ray. The video director for this performance – recorded over two nights – is Michael Beyer, who crops up on a number of EuroArts and Accentus releases.
Part I of the Mahler 8, with its fervid invocations to the creative spirit, is taxing for all involved, not least because it needs to build, wave upon wave, before it crashes onshore in spectacular style. That it doesn’t in this case is largely due to Chailly’s sluggish speeds, the music all too quickly quickly becalmed. As for the soloists, they’re not terribly well blended, and although the choirs are robust in the tuttis they’re apt to disappear in a huge, warm backwash of sound. Matters improve slightly at the return of the great hymn, but by then it’s much too late. Antoni Wit on Blu-ray Audio – review – is far more elemental, sensing that deep swell and letting the waves break at their highest point. By contrast, Chailly’s Part I lacks that mighty ebb and flow; instead, we’re presented with a series of whorls and eddies that advance and withdraw. Very frustrating indeed.
Not a good start, and certainly not a promising prelude to the vast Part II. Chailly’s focus on detail – evident in Part I – could be just what’s needed in the oft diaphanous writing of the Faust setting; that said, a governing pulse is crucial, or else all is lost. The Poco adagio, ideally a series of beautifully crafted, cymbal-capped epiphanies, is a strangely dour affair, the over-prominent pizzicati adding unwelcome weight to Mahler’s light textures. This oddity of balance also applies to the all-important cymbals, which are barely audible.
Indeed, watching the soloists and choirs I was struck by an odd sense of detachment, a curious disjunct between what one sees and hears. It’s much less noticeable when the orchestra is in full cry, but in quieter passages and in vocal solos the sound seems soft edged and slightly displaced from its source. That certainly applies in stereo, and I did wonder whether this was a mix-down from the surround track. In any event, it’s all very synthetic and it compromises spatial relationships, the latter so important in this work. In mitigation, the children’s choirs are excellent, and the soloists are much more satisfying singly than they are as a team. As for the harps, moored like tall-masted schooners at the back of the orchestra, they sound splendid.
To borrow Whitman's phrase, this performance is 'fitful, like a surge', so that by the time ‘Alles Vergängliche’ arrives it’s liable to be met with indifference rather than any sense of anticipation; and although the closing pages are quite impressive it’s not the overwhelming conclusion one might expect. Comparing this finale with the expansive sound of that ‘Resurrection’ is instructive, the latter’s cumulative power and fearless dynamics infinitely preferable to the ungainly apotheosis of this Eighth. I could easily forgive the peculiar balances and veiled sonics if the performance were up to snuff, but this uninspired reading just reminds me of those old Chailly CDs; worthy, but ultimately rather dull.
If you must have the Eighth on Blu-ray I would put away that credit card and wait for Claudio Abbado’s version, the concerts planned for Lucerne later this year. On DVD there’s always Leonard Bernstein (DG) or Klaus Tennstedt (EMI), but if you don’t mind Blu-ray without the visuals Wit offers high-resolution sound – in stereo at least, the surround track is problematic – plus all the insight and urgency Chailly’s version so sorely lacks.
Dan Morgan
Adrift in the doldrums; not a patch on Chailly's fine 'Resurrection'.