Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Symphony No. 8 in E flat [92:45]
Joyce Baker, Elisabeth Simon, Norma Burrowes (sopranos), Joyce Blackham, Alfreda Hodgson (contraltos), John Mitchinson (tenor), Raymond Myer (baritone), Gwynne Howell (bass)
New Philharmonia Chorus, Bruckner-Mahler Choir of London, Ambrosian Singers, Orpington Junior Singers, Highgate School Choir, Finchley Children's Music Group
Symphonica of London/Wyn Morris
rec. 1971 Symphony No. 10 in F sharp (Final revised performing edition by Deryck Cooke) [83:30]
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Wyn Morris
Texts not included HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS BD-A [176:15]
Recently I quibbled mildly at the playing length of an HDTT BD-A disc which contained just the Second Symphony of Sibelius and played for 45 minutes. At the other end of the spectrum, as it were, is this BD-A release. In my experience Mahler releases in BD-A format have contained just one symphony but here HDTT give us two symphonies and a very generous playing time of nearly three hours.
The Welsh conductor Wyn Morris (1929-2010) was a controversial figure. A sometime pupil of George Szell he became noted for his interpretations of Mahler and made several recordings of his music. This recording of the Eighth Symphony was made at an unspecified London venue shortly after two performances at the Royal Albert Hall. For this project Morris used the Symphonica of London. This was not a permanent orchestra but one which Morris assembled for particular projects; I believe the performances of Mahler’s Eighth had been the orchestra’s debut. This was no mere ‘pick-up band’; you can get an idea of the calibre by the fact that I understand that the principal horn on this recording was Alan Civil – who, I believe, was joined in the horn section by his wife and brother. The orchestral playing on this recording may not be immaculate – ensemble isn’t always as tight as one would get from an orchestra accustomed to playing together - but it’s pretty good and there’s no lack of commitment.
I missed this performance when it first came out on LP. It had the misfortune to appear not long after the stellar Solti version on Decca and in those days, as an impecunious student, it would never have occurred to me to duplicate a symphony in my collection. In any case, I’ll admit that if choosing between the two I’m sure I would have been swayed by the luxury casting of the Solti set. By the time the Morris performance appeared on CD I had several versions in my library so I passed this one by, though I see that in his survey of recordings of the symphony Tony Duggan commented favourably on it. Incidentally, in HDTT’s booklet quite a sizeable chunk of Tony’s comments on this recording is inserted, without any kind of attribution. I came to this recording completely fresh.
Morris’s interpretation is very individual. A throaty roar from the organ launches Part I. Anyone who knows this symphony may well be disconcerted by the steady speed that Morris adopts. There’s none of the impetuous surge that you get from Solti or Dudamel, both of whose recordings are available as Blu-rays. This basically steady approach is followed throughout Part I as is demonstrated by comparative timings: Solti takes 23:15 and Dudamel 24:01 but Morris’s version lasts 26:18. I confess there were times when I wanted him to move the music along – for example the orchestral interlude that precedes the bass solo at ‘Infirma nos’ is rather too deliberate. Yet, despite his steady speed there’s abundant inner energy in the performance and the weight that Morris achieves is impressive. His soloists are very good and the combined choirs do him proud. ‘Accende’ is a mighty moment and shortly thereafter the children’s choirs make their mark – as they do at ‘Gloria Patri’. The end of Part I is tumultuous and grand, though the expansive pace must have sorely tried the lung power of the singers.
I nearly part company with Morris at the start of Part II. I have never heard the orchestral introduction and the following spectral passage involving the choir taken so broadly. To give you an indication of how expansive – or slow – Morris is, he reaches the baritone solo ‘Ewiger Wonnebrand’ after 19:17. By contrast Solti gets there at 14:14 and Dudamel at 14:34 and neither of them rush their fences. Even though his pacing is almost perversely broad – and it causes the choir problems in maintaining unanimity – there’s abundant tension in the music and the performance has its own fascination. Once Morris gets to the baritone solo his pacing thereafter is much more “conventional”. His male soloists do a particularly fine job for him and Alfreda Hodgson is the pick of the ladies. The choral singing is good, though perhaps the choirs are a bit too ‘present’ at times and in an ideal world I would have wished the Chorus Mysticus to be more hushed. I suspect this is largely the consequence of microphone placing rather than an inability to sing quietly. Overall this is an impressive account of Part II and the concluding vocal passage before the orchestra’s final peroration, is uplifting.
From HDTT’s website I learn that the recording has been “transferred from a RCA 4-track tape”. The sound, which was originally engineered by Michael Gray, is big and bold – the brass has plenty of presence. On my equipment the recording had lots of power and definition. A few points need to be raised about the presentation of the recording. Firstly, it’s regrettable that so few access points have been provided. Part I is presented as a single track while Part II is divided into three segments. By contrast, the BD-A release of the Solti recording is divided into 16 tracks and the Dudamel, which is a video release, divides the symphony into 25 tracks. There’s also a small but noticeable “blip” between the second and third tracks - just before the More Perfect Angels sing in Part II. Perhaps that was an edit on the original recording? None of the soloists is credited, though I’m told this information will be provided on copies in the future, and there are no texts. All of this is disappointing in a premium product.
Though I’d not previously heard Wyn Morris’s recording of the Eighth his account of the Tenth is more familiar to me because I bought it on LP when it first came out, in 1973, I think. Sadly, however, the lack of a turntable has prevented me from playing the records for some years so I was delighted to find it now on BD-A because though it’s been available on CD I hadn’t caught up with that release.
Deryck Cooke’s attempts to render fit for performance Mahler’s extensive but incomplete sketches of his Tenth Symphony came about as a contribution to the BBC’s celebration of the composer’s centenary. His work was first revealed to the public as a pair of illustrated talks on the BBC Third Programme in December 1960. Later, after Cooke had done more work on his project, Berthold Goldschmidt, who had conducted the orchestral portions of the 1960 broadcast unveiled Coke’s performing version in full at the 1964 Proms. That performance, and the 1960 broadcasts, can be heard on a Testament CD set (SBT3-1457). Tony Duggan summarises the background in his survey of recordings of the Tenth. Cooke did further painstaking work on his performing edition after the 1964 Prom and produced a final version which Wyn Morris and the New Philharmonia performed for the first time in 1972. The present recording followed shortly thereafter. I don’t know where the recording was made – perhaps in the Kingsway Hall – but according to the booklet with the Philips LPs the engineer was Bob Auger.
In recent years I’ve heard a number of recordings of the Cooke edition and it’s been very interesting to come back to this Morris account. HDTT don’t include any track timings so it was only when I’d finished listening that I realised that the performance plays for 84:30. That’s long by comparison with other versions that I know. Rattle, for instance, takes 77:26 in his Berlin recording (review) and his earlier Bournemouth recording (1980) takes 75:32. Kurt Sanderling takes 73:46 (review) and Gianandrea Noseda’s recording lasts for 78:24 (review). There’s a reason for mentioning these timings. In the Eighth symphony I thought Morris was often a bit on the steady side – at least for the first forty minutes or so. However, in the Tenth, though I now know his reading is, overall, more expansive than some of his rivals, I never felt that the pace was too slack.
Indeed, in terms of both the pacing and the sound that he conjures from the NPO Morris’s reading seems consistently ‘right’. In the first movement I was impressed with the very full sonorities that the NPO frequently achieve in the broadly-paced paragraphs. Elsewhere, in more swiftly-moving passages, Morris obtains alert, sharply detailed sound. It seemed to me that he has the full measure of this movement, which he conducts with evident understanding. The main climax (from 18:51) is suitably anguished. The second movement is animated and edgy though the trio episodes have warmth. In the brief Purgatorio the grotesque nature of Mahler’s invention – and Cooke’s realisation of it – comes out vividly. I believe that Mahler wrote at the top of the manuscript of the second scherzo “The Devil is dancing this with me”. The NPO’s rendition of this music is full of bite and weight and I thought this was a terrific performance.
Mahler’s last symphonic adagio is a wonderful movement. Morris achieves a tense, truly spectral start from which the extended flute solo, beautifully played here (from 2:36), rises like a gentle song of hope which the strings then take on tenderly. Soon, however, the mood of the music becomes much more agitated as the doom-laden bass drum strokes, first heard at the start, reappear. All of this Morris and his players accomplish most convincingly. After the grinding dissonance of the big climax (from 12:27) the mood becomes increasingly one of acceptance and gentle warmth. Hereabouts there’s some highly expressive playing from the NPO. Eventually, after more anguished episodes, albeit these are brief, the movement ends on a firm major chord. I think Morris handles this movement extremely well as, indeed, is the case with the symphony as a whole.
I think the Philips recording of the Tenth comes up very well indeed. According to the HDTT website it has been transferred from a Philips 4-Track Tape. The BD-A reproduced very well on my equipment.
How to sum up this release? If I were being asked to recommend a single BD-A version of the Eighth the Solti recording is still the one to go for. It’s more exciting as an interpretation and the performance is more polished. That said, the Morris account has a lot going for it and his often individual interpretation is well worth hearing. It’s the inclusion of the Tenth Symphony that tips the balance. For a start, so far as I’m aware this symphony is otherwise unrepresented in the BD-A format. Even if there were rival BD-A versions Wyn Morris’s recording would give any competition a run for its money. Having the two performances together makes this a desirable package. I do think, however, that HDTT ought to improve the quality of their documentation.
The label has previously issued Morris’s recording of Das Knaben Wunderhorn with Dame Janet Baker and Sir Geraint Evans. However, there were other Mahler recordings by Wyn Morris – Das klagende Lied and Symphonies 2, 5 and 9, I believe. It would be good if HDTT could issue these in BD-A transfers.