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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 why.
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 (review). 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 also 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 (review - 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 that opinion.
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 his review 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.
John Quinn  

Masterwork Index: Mahler 8