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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 Symphony of a Thousand (1906)
Manuela Uhl - Soprano I (Magna Peccatrix)
Michaela Kaune - Soprano II (Una Poenitentium)
Marisol Montalvo - Soprano III (Mater Gloriosa)
Lioba Braun - Alto I (Mulier Samaritana)
Janina Baechle - Alto II (Maria Aegyptiaca)
Stefan Vinke - Tenor (Doctor Marianus)
Michael Nagy - Baritone (Pater Ecstaticus)
Albert Dohmen - Bass-baritone (Pater Profundus)
Chor der Bamberger Symphoniker
Czech Philharmonic Choir
Windsbacher Knabenchor
Bamberger Symphoniker/Jonathan Nott
rec. 21-26 July 2010, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Konzerthalle Bamberg, Germany
Hybrid SACD, stereo and multi-channel. Reviewed in SACD stereo
Sung texts and translations provided
TUDOR 7192 [78:37]

In the preamble to my recent review of Jonathan Nott’s Mahler Sixth I noted that his traversal of these symphonies - only No. 10 and Das Lied von der Erde still to come - has been somewhat erratic. That Sixth was particularly disappointing, although I still maintain that his Bamberg Resurrection (review) deserves a place in the pantheon of great Mahler recordings. Given his patchy record to date can amends be made with the Eighth? He faces stiff competition from the likes of Horenstein (BBC Legends) and Gielen (Sony and Hänssler), and despite irreparable distortion in parts Solti’s classic Decca account burns with renewed heat in this high-res download from Linn/Universal (review).
There are several stand-out performances of the Eighth on DVD/Blu-ray: Tennstedt (DVD only), Wit (Blu-ray Audio) and Dudamel’s highly theatrical Caracas account (review). On balance I’d say the latter is probably the most satisfying Mahler 8 video available at the moment. It certainly eclipses Chailly’s Gewandhaus version (review). Coming back to Nott and his Bambergers, what I want from their Eighth is the same urgency, flair and unerring sense of drama that drives their Resurrection; a tall order perhaps, but a heartfelt one nonetheless.
I’m delighted to report that Hrabanus’s great choral invocation at the start has plenty of sweep, and although the organ is rather discreet the overall sound is warm and wide-ranging. Balances are good too, with the soloists spread realistically from left to right. Most welcome, though, is Nott’s firm grip on the music; he may not aspire to the febrile intensity of Solti or Horenstein, but he compensates for that with passages of unexpected inwardness and a fine ear for Mahler’s distinctive sonorities. Yes, there are some unusual percussion sounds - Wit also has a few - but that hardly matters when everything flows and segues so well. The soloists are pretty decent, and the various choirs are weighty and incisive throughout.
One of the real strengths of Nott’s Part I is his attention to the quieter moments, the smaller details of which are often subsumed by this great welter of notes. That, combined with the clarity that distinguishes his Resurrection, makes for an utterly compelling start to this ambitious symphony. Admittedly his spacious reading - some might even say it’s sluggish - won’t please everyone. I would have preferred greater momentum, but the oases of calm more than make up for that. Those qualities also inform the half-lit world of Part II; Nott invests these landscapes with the same raptness and intimacy of scale, and there’s a heightened sense of wonder in the long orchestral introduction that’s very impressive indeed.
Listening to this recording for the second time I was slightly less accommodating of Nott’s leisurely pace which, remarkably, doesn’t compromise the performance nearly as much as you might think. I suppose what really strikes me here is the direct and unambiguous narrative, devoid of unnecessary embellishments or distracting detours. Often graceful but gnarly too, Nott’s rendering of this Faustian ramble is always enthralling. As for the Bambergers they respond to his every demand with precision and poise, while the soloists create - and sustain - an air of communion that’s profoundly affecting.
Other sets may offer more distinguished singers but I must single out Stefan Vinke, whose Doctor Marianus is sung with a rare blend of passion and intelligence. All the while Nott ensures the pulse never falters, and tempo relationships are deftly managed. The performance is lucidly recorded too; indeed, the chamber-like episodes bloom and breathe in a way they seldom do elsewhere. In that context Mahler is akin to Berlioz, whose large-scale works also conceal so much that is light and lovely. Some may feel that Nott focuses too much on these touches, but I have no problem with that; in fact, I relished the chance to simply stand and stare.
One of the tests of a successful performance of this symphony is how quickly and seamlessly Part II passes. All too often those long spans sag and bulge - Chailly and Boulez come to mind - but Nott remains reassuringly robust throughout. It’s all about the work's great beams and supporting buttresses, and this conductor pays due attention to both. Indeed, it's that structural certainty - the edifice has been so meticulously crafted - that gives the closing pages their strength and gratifying shape. No rhetorical flourishes or rude blasts here, just sure and steady progress towards that transcendent finale.
Rivals are more visceral towards the end, Dudamel especially so; true, some may find Nott’s unhurried approach somewhat frustrating, but that’s his way with this sprawling score. Under his clear-eyed direction the symphony seems remarkably compact and self-contained, and that gives the performance a very human scale and character. Nott's Eighth wouldn’t be my first choice - it’s not in the same league as his Resurrection - but it has more than enough attractions to warrant a space on your shelves. At the end of my review of that unsuccessful Sixth I wondered whether he’d redeem himself in the Eighth. On balance I think he has.
Notable for its detail and intimacy; refreshingly different.
Dan Morgan

Masterwork Index: Mahler 8