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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major
Ricarda Merbeth (soprano - Magna Peccatrix); Juliane Banse (soprano – Una poenitentium); Anna Lucia Richter (soprano – Mater gloriosa); Sara Mingardo (alto – Mulier Samaritana); Mihoko Fujimura (alto - Maria Aegyptiaca); Andreas Schager (tenor – Doctor Marianus); Peter Mattei (baritone – Pater ecstaticus); Samuel Youn (bass - Pater profundus);
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Latvian Radio Choir; Orfeo´n Donostiarra; Tölzer Knabenchor
Lucerne Festival Orchestra / Riccardo Chailly
rec. live, 12 & 13 August, 2016, Concert Hall of KKL Luzern
Picture Format DVD: NTSC 16:9
Sound Formats DVD: PCM Stereo
Dolby Digital 5.1
DTS 5.1
Region Code: 0 (worldwide)
Disc Format: DVD-9
Subtitles: German, English, French, Japanese, Korean, Chinese
ACCENTUS ACC20390 DVD [92:56]

There are quite a few film recordings of Mahler’s Eighth. Of those I’ve seen the versions led by Jansons and Tennstedt are memorable (the Tennstedt performance is available on an EMI DVD and has also been released as an audio CD on the LPO’s own label – review). Then there’s the performance conducted by Gustavo Dudamel which is a very special experience indeed. I’ve not seen the filmed 2011 Leipzig performance conducted by Riccardo Chailly though I notice that Dan Morgan was somewhat underwhelmed by it (review). At the end of his appraisal of that Chailly performance, which he wrote in 2012, Dan counselled waiting for a planned Claudio Abbado performance of the Eighth which was scheduled to take place later in 2012 and which, like his other Lucerne Mahler performances was a likely candidate for video release. Sadly, I believe, that performance never took place on account of the great Italian conductor’s failing health. I think I’m right in saying that it was the only Mahler symphony that he never conducted in Lucerne.

Abbado died in 2014 and subsequently Chailly was named to succeed him as chief conductor of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Chailly chose Mahler’s Eighth for his inaugural concerts and so, in a sense, concluded Abbado’s Lucerne Mahler cycle. He designed the performances as a 'tribute to Claudio'. As we are reminded in the booklet, early in his career Chailly was Abbado’s assistant at La Scala and he held Abbado in great esteem.

There doesn’t seem to be room for a vast choir in the Lucerne concert hall. However, numbers may not be particularly relevant because the forces that Chailly has at his disposal include at least two professional adult choirs – I’m unsure if the San Sebastian-based Orfeo´n Donostiarra is professional but like the Bavarian and Latvian ensembles it has a very strong reputation. The members of the Tölzer Knabenchor are positioned in balconies to the left and right of the platform. The platform itself is crammed with orchestral players and the seven principal vocal soloists are placed at the front on either side of the podium. The eighth singer, Anna Lucia Richter sings the short but critical role of Mater gloriosa from a position next to the organ console, high up above the rear of the platform.

Part One is tumultuous at times though I don’t get the same adrenalin rush provided by Dudamel, Tennstedt or Solti in his famous studio recording. One point of detail that I noticed was that just before the choral entry at ‘Infirma nostri corporis’ the tolling bell, usually in my experience played on tubular bells, is here played using proper bells – Chailly uses these bells throughout. I liked this effect. Even more, I liked the fervour with which the boys sing out at ‘Accende’; their mouths are wide open and they sing with terrific commitment. In fact, that’s true of their contributions throughout the symphony. When I watched the film, I had the impression that in the loud passages the balance favoured the soloists and orchestra over the choir: a larger choir would have made more impact. It’s noticeable that in Part Two, where much of the music is more gently scored, the choir can be much better heard. I should, however, qualify my comment about balance by saying that when I listened only to the audio of Part One through my hi-fi system the choir seemed better balanced. So, if you have a more sophisticated sound system linked to your TV than I do you may well get better results.

Overall, Chailly’s performance of Part One is very good with all the performers clearly committed to the task even if at the end I didn’t feel as if I’d been swept off my feet.

I have the impression that the orchestral opening to Part Two lacks a little mystery; it seems just a fraction too quick and too loud. However, the ardent passages are superbly done by Chailly and his orchestra; here one is reminded not only that the music was composed by a man steeped in the dramatic environs of the opera house but is also being conducted by a very experienced operatic conductor. The spectral choral passage is very well done. Baritone Peter Mattei sings the fairly short Pater ecstaticus solo very well indeed and from memory. Bass Samuel Youn is much more tied to his copy but, then, the Pater profundus solo is much longer and more complex. He makes a decent job of it.

In the passages that follow I thought the sections for female choir were superbly done: three very fine choirs are on show here. Similarly, the orchestral playing is magnificent, the players showing considerable finesse. The quartet of female soloists do well with Sara Mingardo and Juliane Banse particularly impressive. I’m not quite sure about tenor Andreas Schager. Mahler tests his tenor to the limits and there are times when Schager seems to be straining. Mind you, at ‘Höchste Herrscherin der Welt’ I don’t think Chailly does him any favours; the opening of the passage is unduly hasty so that Schager has no space in which to phrase the music with any grace or sense of rapture.

The gorgeous orchestral passage that leads up to ‘Dir, der Unberührbaren’ is luminously done and Chailly gets the balance right, not milking the passage excessively but letting its sentimental beauty come through. The choral passage itself is superbly sung. The ‘Blicket auf’ episode, ardently introduced by Schager, is well brought off after which the orchestral transition to the Chorus mysticus is magically achieved – here the playing of the LFO is wonderfully sensitive. The choir’s entry at ‘Alles vergängliche’ is wonderfully hushed – a mystic chorus indeed. What a shame that when the two soprano soloists join in Ricarda Merbeth’s pitching is slightly suspect at the top of her stratospherically high line. The close is splendidly grand with extra brass adding their tonal weight to the ensemble - as they did at the end of Part One - from the organ loft on high. Chailly manages to hold a surprisingly lengthy silence to allow the last choir to decay naturally: no Proms-style instantaneous ovation here!

This is a very good account of Mahler’s Eighth; Riccardo Chailly has opened his Lucerne tenure in fine style and paid a suitable tribute to his illustrious predecessor. He controls the performance expertly, getting a splendid response from his players and singers.

Accentus present the concert very well. The camera work is excellent, the picture selection always relevant to what’s going on, and the sound quality is very good.

I don’t believe that this Lucerne performance takes the palm from Dudamel’s once-in-a-lifetime video performance but it’s still a very fine traversal of Mahler’s hugely ambitious work.

John Quinn



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