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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E flat (1910) [79.46]
Heather Harper, Lucia Popp, Arleen Augér (sopranos), Yvonne Minton, Helen Watts (contraltos), René Kollo (tenor), John Shirley-Quirk (baritone), Martti Talvela (bass)
Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Singverein, Vienna Boys’ Choir
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, August and September 1971
DECCA 4785006 BD-A [79.46]

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is not a work that anybody could consider easy to mount, quite apart from the sheer size of the forces involved which led at an early stage to its being dubbed ‘the Symphony of a Thousand’. One needs an orchestra which extends to quintuple woodwind, massively expanded brass forces including seven trombones, four keyboard players to handle organ, harmonium, piano and celesta, a children’s choir which is divided into four parts, double chorus, and string forces to match. Then one needs seven top-flight solo singers – two sopranos, two mezzos, tenor, baritone and bass – all of whom need to have the power to match these forces in full cry. There is also an offstage solo soprano, whose part may be small but who is required in her few bars to attack a top B-flat pianissimo, not an accomplishment easy to undertake. Mahler recognised this by providing an alternative in the score which allows for her B-flat to be approached by leap from the octave below. The two other soprano soloists both have to provide top Cs confidently and in full voice. During the final Chorus mysticus the first soprano has to rise to a top C again marked pianissimo, descending through a chromatic scale to meet the second soprano rising to join her on a high B-flat which is also marked pianissimo and which must merge effortlessly into the line above. Again Mahler seems to have had some doubts about the practicality of this, placing the pp markings in the first soprano in brackets. He allows no such options to the second soprano. The tenor part is even more difficult to cast, requiring a top C during the closing pages. This is well covered up by the rest of the choir and orchestra. There is also a requirement to rise to a top B natural at one point, which is well above the comfortable range of the usual Wagnerian heldentenor which the part clearly expects elsewhere. Again Mahler allows an alternative for this passage avoiding the top B, but he makes no bones about demanding top B-flats in full voice elsewhere and the results can often be distressingly strained. The lower parts for solo voices – mezzos, baritone and bass – are less obviously challenging, but any weak link can seriously compromise the effect of a performance.

Under the circumstances it is not altogether surprising that the Eighth had to wait quite a very long time for a really satisfactory recording. It is not a work that generally thrived in live performance, especially in the early years of the Mahler revival when both singers and orchestras unfamiliar with the score frequently committed errors – a performance under Jascha Horenstein issued on BBC Legends some years ago contained some particularly unpleasant brass bloopers. The first recording made in the studio was issued by Maurice Abravanel with his Utah forces. Abravanel was one of the pioneers of the Mahler revival in America, but his recording suffered from severe problems of balance and some of his soloists were frankly inadequate. The same considerations afflicted later recordings made as part of complete Mahler cycles by Bernard Haitink and Rafael Kubelik. Leonard Bernstein made a better impression in his recording of 1968. The CBS engineers, understandably terrified of the huge dynamic contrasts involved, subjected all the performers to close microphone placement which not only detracted from these but also gave an unfortunately dry and airless acoustic to the sound. It was not until Solti, taking his Chicago orchestra to Vienna to record with Viennese choirs and an international roster of soloists, produced in 1972 a recording which in sonic terms began to do justice to Mahler’s score.

I purchased the Decca LPs on their first release, but they suffered from the need to split the extended second movement across three sides with inevitable destructive side-breaks which made musical nonsense. Accordingly at a later date I replaced this with the Decca cassette which gave the music without breaks, but which inevitably had to avoid distortion on the tape by scaling back some of the more bass-heavy climaxes. With the advent of the CD era Decca originally issued the recording on two CDs at full price, although it has subsequently become available crammed on to one very lengthy CD in the mid-price range or at bargain price as part of a set of Solti’s complete Mahler symphonies. This excluded the Tenth, where Solti did not regard Deryck Cooke’s performing edition as an adequate representation of the composer’s intentions. At that stage I replaced the Solti in my collection with the even more highly regarded EMI recording by Klaus Tennstedt. I have listened to that recording again as part of my reviewing procedures for this new Blu-Ray release. I have to say at once that the CD sound from EMI lacks much of the punch of this new re-mastering of the old Decca although the solo voices are more recessed into the orchestral and choral balance.

Decca had a solid reputation for handling large-scale scores in the acoustic of the Vienna Sofiensaal with great success. One suspects that even they found their work cut out to capture every detail of the music. As it is, there is clear evidence of selected highlighting of individual strands in the texture, especially and most noticeably the voice of René Kollo. Unfortunately it is Kollo’s contribution which is the least satisfactory element in this recording. At the time Kollo was the reigning heldentenor in the Wagner/Mahler/Strauss repertory. His choice for this performance was almost inevitable but even though his voice here is less prone to the wide vibrato that afflicted it later, there is still an unsteadiness of production. There's also a sense of strain in the high notes. This is far from ideal. Richard Versalle on the Tennestedt recording is even less satisfactory, with his smaller voice nearly overwhelmed in the bigger climaxes; nor is he clear of the charge of unsteadiness either. Ben Heppner on Decca’s more recent recording with the Concertgebouw conducted by Riccardo Chailly gets it just about right. On the other hand Chailly’s two sopranos, Anna Schwanewilms and Jane Eaglen, don’t manage the transition between their high-lying pianissimo passages as well as Lucia Popp and Heather Harper do here. Tennstedt’s pair are even less satisfactory, although worst of all are those in Zinman’s Zurich recording who actually manage a crescendo in distinct contradiction to Mahler’s marking of sempre pp.

Where Solti does score is in his emphasis on the organ entry in the closing pages – presumably dubbed in since the Sofiensaal did not possess an instrument. This comprehensively trumps Tennstedt’s rather feeble realisation of the Volles Werk which Mahler requests. Tennstedt’s organ does not make its proper mark until some four bars later, when it emerges from the choral textures in a passage marked diminuendo in the score. His LPO live recording is better, although some close spotlighting of the soloists by the BBC engineers does them little favours. Rattle’s live Birmingham recording has similar problems with the organ balance. Gergiev on LSO Live suffers from the claustrophobic acoustic of the Barbican Hall. This brief survey by no means exhausts the roster of more recent recordings of Mahler’s Eighth. Even so, Solti remains well up amongst the front-runners and was still the most highly recommended version in the 2005/6 edition of the Penguin Guide. I have not heard the recordings conducted by Sinopoli or Gielen which both received three stars in that volume.

Solti’s performance remains startling in many ways, not least in his often headlong speeds which challenge his forces to the full. Only at one point, at the beginning of the closing Chorus mysticus, did I feel that a slower speed might have been advantageous. It moves at a pace rather faster than I would imagine is implied by Mahler’s marking Sehr langsam. Solti is magnificent in the opening Veni creator spiritus movement, generating a real sense of excitement in the onward propulsion. This eludes many of his more cautious rivals. His soloists, with the exception of Kollo, are one of the best on disc. Popp and Harper are not only superb in their pianissimi but also manage to produce glorious sounds in full voice. He has an unparalleled pair of mezzos in the shape of Yvonne Minton and Helen Watts. John Shirley-Quirk manages to make his entry as Pater Ecstaticus less of a jolt, interrupting the superbly controlled opening prelude to Part Two. Martti Talvela is a black-voiced Pater Profundus with all the savagery that the music demands. The Vienna Boys’ Choir are also magnificent and the Vienna Singverein, sometimes less than steady in other recordings, benefit from being bolstered by the Vienna State Opera Chorus. Its sopranos are capable of rising to the top Cs in the closing pages of the first movement without any sense of effort. That doyen of chorus masters Wilhelm Pitz welds them into a fully integrated unit. The Chicago players, well accustomed to Solti’s demands at this time, play their hearts out and never fail to register every detail within the often detailed score. One must single out the solo piccolo in the passage just before the Chorus mysticus, with its total avoidance of the shrillness than can often afflict the instrument in its highest register.

So, is it worthwhile for those many potential purchasers who already own the Solti recording in one or another of its CD versions to invest in this new Blu-Ray CD? Well, in the first place Decca have missed a trick in failing to provide the text and translations as part of the video presentation for those who are playing the disc on their Blu-rays through their televisions. They are, it is true, included in the booklet which comes with the disc. Naxos in their recent Blu-ray of Schumann’s Scenes from Faust — setting much of the same text as Mahler here — scored a point by providing the text and translations as a running set of subtitles on screen matched to the progression of the music. Obviously this re-mastering captures to the full the superb full range of the original LPs which I remember so well. There is a real sense of being present in the Sofiensaal which eludes many other recordings with their different degrees of emphasis. One might however have wished for something more in the way of extras to justify potential purchasers who might want this new re-mastering. As I have observed on several occasions, the impact of the recording remains highly dependent on the equipment which is used to play it. Heard through a normal television receiver, the listener is unlikely to notice much more than good analogue CD sound. There is no ambient ‘surround sound’, for example.

On the other hand, when the recording was originally released on CD I observe that the review in the Gramophone complained about some traces of distortion — and mentioned ‘clipping’ of the sound — in the strenuous final pages of the second movement. For the purposes of this review I have listened again to the 1996 CD release, and cannot detect the distortions which were the subject of that complaint. However, I can now discern some rapid adjustment of recording levels in the final bars which I do not recall from the days of LP. The final side of the LP set had an extremely short duration, which allowed for the grooves to be very widely spaced indeed. There is a decidedly crisper edge to the sound on the Blu-ray which some may find preferable to the earlier release. Given that the 1972 recording was analogue, those who purchase the Blu-ray certainly need not feel stinted in terms of sound quality. The performance is really something pretty special, even more than forty years later. Michael Kennedy’s booklet note is rightly appreciative of it.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Download of the Month March 2012)
Masterwork Index: Mahler symphony 8