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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major (1906)
Barbara Haveman (soprano) - Magna Peccatrix; Orla Boylan (soprano); Christiane Oelze (soprano) - Una Pœnitentium; Anna Palimina (soprano) - Mater Gloriosa; Petra Lang (mezzo) - Mulier Samaritana; Maria Radner (alto) - Mater Ægyptiaca; Brandon Jovanovich (tenor) - Doctor Marianus; Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone) - Pater Ecstaticus; Günther Groissböck (bass) - Pater Profundus
Mädchen und Knaben der Chöre am Kölner Dom; Chor des Bach-Vereins Köln; Domkantorei Köln; Philharmonischer Chor der Stadt Bonn/Vokalensemble Kölner Dom
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Markus Stenz
rec. 23-27 September 2011, Kölner Philharmonie, Germany. Stereo/multichannel
Latin and German texts included
I was a little bit surprised to receive this disc for review at this stage in Markus Stenz’s Mahler cycle. Many leave the Eighth till last but we still await Stenz’s recordings of the Sixth, Seventh, Ninth and, I hope, the full performing version of the Tenth. Judging by the recording dates I suspect he opened the Gürzenich-Orchester’s 2011/12 concert series with the Eighth - previous issues in this cycle have been set down in the wake of concert performances. In any case, there’s no rule that says you have to record the Eighth last. Previous releases in the cycle have been variable, though never less than good and, at their best, very good indeed (Symphonies 2, 3 & 5 - Symphony 3 - Symphony 1) so the arrival of this latest instalment aroused my expectations.
Long gone are the days when recordings of this symphony were rarer than the proverbial hen’s teeth. The MusicWeb International review index lists over twenty versions that we have appraised over the years and even from this list there are some versions that did not come to us for review. Not the least of these ‘ones that got away’ is the celebrated Decca recording by Sir Georg Solti for which he took the mighty Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a stellar team of soloists to the Sofiensaal, Vienna where they linked up with Viennese choirs. By an odd piece of symmetry that recording was made in September 1971, forty years to the month before this Stenz version. It’s been interesting to make some comparisons between the Solti version and this newcomer.
Stenz launches Part I in fine style. Perhaps he’s not as tumultuous as, say, Solti or Tennstedt (review) but it’s still energetic and very impressive. From early on it’s clear that Stenz has assembled a fine roster of soloists and the team is well placed on the aural stage so their contributions are clear. The impetuous leap forward at “Accende” (track 2, 0:00) is brought off very well as is the hectic passage that follows, though I would have liked the important children’s choir part to have cut through more hereabouts. “Hostem repellas” is delivered with real bite and the reprise of “Veni, creator spiritus” is properly resplendent (track 2, from 5:06). Disappointingly, the tone of the children’s choir is smooth rather than biting at “Gloria” (track 3, from about 0:20) but the heaven-storming end is thrilling.
At this point, and prompted chiefly by my slight disappointment over the children’s choir, I put the Solti disc in the player. Wow! Remember, this recording is forty years older. The Decca team of David Harvey (producer), Kenneth Wilkinson and Gordon Parry (sound engineers) produced results that defy the years. The sound of Solti’s forces fairly leaps out of the loudspeakers. Now, I mustn’t give the impression that the Oehms recording pales by comparison; it most certainly does not. In some respects it’s better; arguably, the Decca sound is a bit bright and in-your-face, for example. However, it’s interesting that while both recordings favour the orchestra and soloists rather more than the chorus, Solti’s Viennese singers come through with even greater presence when the entire ensemble is flat out than do their Cologne colleagues. Time and again the Vienna Boys’ Choir’s sound cuts through the texture - without sounding raw - and they register much more strongly than do the Cologne young singers. One other point to note is that the Decca organ (dubbed in?) is more present than the Cologne instrument.
There’s also an extra bit of adrenalin overall in the Solti account, excellent though Stenz is. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the last couple of minutes of Part I. Solti conducts like a man possessed - but always in control - the supermen (and women) of Chicago play magnificently and Dame Heather Harper and Lucia Popp ride the tsunami of sound imperiously. It’s music-making that sweeps all before it and it’s viscerally exciting. At this point Stenz, splendid though he is, doesn’t quite make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in the same way.
Stenz leads an excellent account of the extended orchestral introduction to Part II. He and his musicians generate plenty of atmosphere and not only is the playing very good indeed but also the Oehms engineers report it with great clarity. Now we hear the soloists by turn. First out of the blocks is Hanno Müller-Brachmann as Pater Ecstaticus. He’s excellent, singing with firm, pleasing tone and lots of expression. The quality of his singing is such as to make one regret that his solo is relatively short. Günther Groissböck (Pater Profundus) impresses. His is a potent vocal presence and his solo is imposingly dramatic.
After the Pater Profundus solo the light, airy music that follows is expertly handled by Stenz, reviving memories of his way with the inner movements of the Third symphony and also with the Fourth. The singers who serve as the various strata of angels do so charmingly. Having been a little disappointed by the children’s choir in Part I it’s good to report that they excel here. In these pages the music doesn’t require them to sing with as much bite as earlier and their sound has a disarming freshness and clarity. I was very taken with Brandon Jovanovich as Doctor Marianus. The passage in his solo beginning “Höchste Herrscherin der Welt” is cruelly demanding: both the line and the tessitura are daunting but Jovanovich doesn’t flinch and sings the music very well, floating “Plötzlich mildert sich die Glut” nicely. The solo becomes particularly demanding at “Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinn” but he rises to the challenge very well. Leaping ahead briefly, he also does the “Blicket auf” solo very well indeed, singing with a fine sense of line and bring the solo to an ardent conclusion. That said, I’d rather forgotten how fine a job René Kollo does for Solti.
The ladies all do very well. Petra Lang and Maria Radner both sing with notable expressiveness while Christiane Oelze’s silvery tone is heard to good advantage. Later, when Anna Palimina makes her brief appearance as Mater Gloriosa the engineers achieve an excellent effect: she’s been placed at just the right distance from everyone else and the effect is splendid. To make matters even better she sings very well indeed.
After the tenor solo, “Blicket auf” the whole passage leading up to the Chorus Mysticus is done brilliantly. The chorus sings extremely well, the orchestra plays with fine sensitivity and Stenz shapes and moulds the music expertly. The transitional clarinet solo leading to the hushed entry of the choir is magical and the chorus takes up the challenge with a beautifully soft and controlled delivery of “Alles Vergängliche”. The final choral apotheosis is resplendent and the orchestra, left to conclude the symphony by itself, does so superbly, offering majestic, sonorous playing which is capped thrillingly by some immense strokes on the tam-tam. Solti’s conclusion packs a real punch too but here, I think, Stenz matches him for splendour.
The booklet calls for comment. Not only are the sung texts provided but also the words that Mahler omitted are included, though these are crossed through. I’ve not seen this done before. I suppose it’s interesting but the value is negated due to Oehms’ failure to provide an English translation of the words - though I note they offer a German translation of “Veni, creator”. This is consistent with their practice in previous issues in the series but it does seem to me to be perverse - and cheeseparing - to provide an English translation of the notes but not of the texts.
This is a considerable recording of the Eighth and it’s a splendid addition to the Stenz cycle. Indeed, I believe it’s one of the best issues in the series to date. If I want visceral excitement or inspirational zeal I’d probably still turn first to Solti or Tennstedt. However, Markus Stenz, in offering us a clear-sighted approach to this mammoth score manages to keep his sense of proportion and objectivity without sacrificing excitement. He really has the measure of this music and he puts it across very well indeed. His soloists may not quite match the Solti team - still unrivalled overall on disc in my experience - but there isn’t a weak link among them and they deliver their demanding parts expertly and with ringing conviction. The choirs do very well indeed and the orchestral playing is perhaps the best I’ve heard from the Gürzenich-Orchester in a cycle during which they’ve always offered committed and fine playing.
It must be a colossal challenge for the engineers to capture this huge symphony which ranges from the tumultuous passages in Part I to the spare textures that open Part II. In truth, it’s a score that is always going to be difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce for domestic listening. I’d say the Oehms team have done a very creditable job indeed; I listened in conventional CD format but SACD should unlock even more sonic splendour. It’s been fascinating, however, to compare what the Decca engineers achieved in 1971, producing results that can still stand comparison with the best that the twenty-first century has to offer.
John Quinn
Tony Duggan’s synoptic survey of recordings of Mahler’s Eighth

Masterwork Index: Mahler 8