Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E flat major (1906-07)
Magna peccatrix - Christine Brewer (soprano)
Una poenitentium - Camilla Nylund (soprano)
Mater gloriosa - Maria Espada (soprano)
Mulier samaritana - Stephanie Blythe (alto I)
Maria aegyptiaca - Mihoko Fujimura (alto II)
Doctor marianus - Robert Dean Smith (tenor)
Pater ecstaticus - Tommi Hakala (baritone)
Pater profundus - Stefan Kocán (bass)
Bavarian Radio Chorus, Netherlands Radio Choir, State Choir ‘Latvija’,
National Children’s Choir, National Boys Choir
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. 4, 6 March 2011, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
German and Latin texts with English, French, Dutch translations
RCO LIVE RCO13003
[ 80:15 + bonus DVD 86:27]
The RCO Live label here gives us another example of their extremely
generous policy whereby occasionally a performance is offered on SACD
with a ‘bonus’ DVD included for good measure - they offered
a similar package with Jansons’ excellent account of the Second
Symphony (RCO 10102). In principle such a package represents extremely
good value for money but when the performance is as fine as the one
here offered then it’s exceptional
value for money.
The performance is the same one that was included in the label’s
recent DVD/Blu-ray set of all the Mahler symphonies, the Blu-ray version
of which was reviewed
only recently by Dan Morgan. In a review of a set such as that one can’t
go into inordinate detail about the performance of each symphony but
I thought it was telling that Dan devoted a lot of space to Jansons’
account of the Eighth and now, having seen and heard it, I can understand
Perhaps I should start by saying that the sound on the DVD is very good
- though I haven’t got my DVD player hooked up to my hi-fi system.
However, the sound on the audio disc, which I played as a conventional
CD, is superb; the massive tuttis, such as the ends of both parts of
the symphony, register thrillingly but just as exciting is the definition
in the many quiet passages, such as the introduction to Part II.
The performance has absolutely no weak links. The choral singing, so
crucial in this work, is highly disciplined and excellent: the combined
choirs are thrillingly open-throated in the big tuttis but very sensitive
in the quieter passages, of which there are many. The adult choir isn’t
the largest I’ve seen in a performance of this symphony, comprising
probably no more than 200 singers. However, to the best of my knowledge
all three component choirs are composed of professional singers and
that’s probably why they punch so much above their numerical weight.
As for the children‘s chorus, they are consistently excellent.
Their singing is incisive and confident and, incredibly, they sing this
complex music entirely from memory and with studied concentration. Mariss
Jansons unfailingly gives them an encouraging smile each time he brings
them in, which must help, but these young singers seem utterly unfazed
by the tumult going on around them. Bravo!
The playing of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is superb throughout.
In the passages where Mahler demands full volume they rise to the occasion
every time without ever once sacrificing quality of tone. Where they
really come into their own, however, are the more subtly etched stretches
of the score. The extended introduction to Part II, in which Jansons
evidences a fine attention to detail, is wonderfully delivered. A little
later on the strings offer gorgeous playing in the passage with harmonium
and harps leading up the choir’s passage beginning ‘Dir,
der Unberürhbahren’ (CD track 13). Amongst many fine solo
contributions from the section principals I’d like to offer a
special word of praise for the beautiful, rounded tone of the principal
bassoonist in various solos in Part II. The RCO has a proud Mahler tradition
and that tradition is not just upheld but enhanced by this performance.
Jansons benefits from a very strong team of soloists who are positioned
at the front of the stage on either side of the conductor’s rostrum.
Christine Brewer is a noted exponent of the role of Soprano I/Magna
Peccatrix - she can be heard also on Rattle’s 2004 CBSO recording
She’s in imperious form here. No less impressive is Camilla Nylund.
She is as formidable as Brewer when power is required in the upper register
but in Part II she sings beautifully, and sometimes touchingly, in the
Gretchen role. The third soprano is Maria Espada who I recently heard,
to good advantage, in Bach’s Matthäus-Passion
from the Concertgebouw (review
Here she has much less to do in the small but critical role of Mater
gloriosa. She sings from the very back of the tiered staging and the
effect is magical, as it should be, Miss Espada’s pure silvery
tone being ideally suited to this music. Stephanie Blythe is billed
as a mezzo but has a very rich, full timbre. Mihoko Fujimura, who is
a contralto, impressed me in Andris Nelsons’ Symphony Hall performance
of Mahler’s Second Symphony in September 2012 (review
She makes an equally positive impression here, singing with a firm tone.
One thing I like about this singer is her ability to sing most expressively
without any apparent excessive physical effort.
There are three good male soloists too. Tommi Hakala sings with fine
expression and a good sense of line as Pater ecstaticus. His Part
II solo is all-too brief. We hear more of Pater profundus. Stefan Kocán
is commanding in this role - and impressive too in Part I. His big solo
in Part II is ardently delivered, yet with splendid control, and the
orchestral playing that supports him matches his ardour. The tenor role
is especially taxing; the singer needs plenty of power yet must also
sing much of his music with sweet tone and, if this were not enough,
the tessitura is frequently brutal. Robert Dean Smith does
a good job, though I see Dan Morgan appeared less impressed. There’s
a fine ring to his voice in the ‘Höchste Herrscherin der
Welt’ solo (CD track 12) and no little eloquence at the passage
beginning ‘Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinn’. Later
he is convincing at ‘Blicket auf zum Retterblick’.
Over all these forces presides Mariss Jansons. I’m deeply impressed
and not a little moved by his interpretation. It’s not as heart-on-sleeve
in nature as Klaus Tennstedt’s vivid live account with the LPO
- also available on an EMI DVD) but Jansons clearly feels the music
deeply and he also relishes the performance that is unfolding, as is
evident from some of his facial expressions. Above all, the performance
is superbly controlled and though Jansons gives the music its head he
keeps a very firm grip on things and also displays tremendous attention
to detail. He directs the introduction to Part II, including the eerie
choral parts, masterfully (CD track 5) and later in Part II the passages
involving various angelic choirs (CD tracks 10-11) is done with freshness
and charm; there’s much delicate singing and playing hereabouts.
The big moments are thrilling and imposing in Jansons’ hands.
Part I is launched with great urgency - the sound of the organ registers
superbly at this point - while the passage from ‘Accende’
up to the reprise of ‘Veni, creator spiritus’ (CD track
4) is tumultuous, yet held firmly on the leash. The end of Part I is
magnificent, the music borne along on a flood tide of exultant sound
with the two soprano soloists soaring thrillingly over the top of the
vast ensemble in a way that calls to mind the unforgettable singing
of Heather Harper and Lucia Popp on the famous Solti set. Jansons handles
the very end of the symphony superbly. The ‘Blicket auf’
passage is shaped most convincingly and the entry of the Chorus Mysticus
- ‘Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis’ - is hushed
and rapt. The final contribution of the singers - the fortissimo
reprise of ‘Alles Vergängliche’ - is transfiguring
and the concluding orchestral peroration is magnificent. No wonder the
performers are accorded an intense standing ovation.
There are several fine performances of Mahler’s Eighth in the
catalogue, and this Jansons version deserves to be ranked among the
elite, I think. Dan Morgan termed it an Eighth to remember and I second
There are one or two presentational issues. The DVD is divided into
just two chapters, one each for Parts I and II; the audio disc, however,
has 18 tracks, which is much more helpful. More seriously, as Dan Morgan
pointed out, there are no subtitles on the DVD, which seems a very serious
omission for such a release. However, at least here one has the texts
and translations in the booklet. The camera-work on the DVD, directed
by Joost Honselaar, is very good.
This is a performance, as I indicated, that upholds firmly the Concertgebouw
Mahler tradition and I’m delighted that RCO Live has chosen to
release it separately. May I end with a plea that they will accord similar
treatment to Bernard Haitink’s performance of the Ninth, which
was also included in the collection of filmed live performances? In
Dan indicated that too was something very special and it would be fitting
if the orchestra could release separately - preferably in a similar
SACD/DVD package - that performance by their highly distinguished Conductor
Laureate. For now, though, do not miss this incandescent Eighth under
the RCO’s present Chief Conductor.
Masterwork Index: Mahler