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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 (1910) (arranged for organ by David Briggs) [86.29]
Bryn Holdsworth, Rachel Rosales, Jana McIntyre (sopranos), Sara Murphy, Noragh Devlin (mezzo-sopranos), John Tiranno (tenor), Tim Murray (baritone), Adam Lau (bass)
Oratorio Society of New York, Manhattan School of Music Symphony Chorus and Women’s Chorus, Cathedral Choristers of St John the Divine/Kent Tritle
rec. live, Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York, 7 April 2016
PRO ORGANO CD7276 [25.35 + 60.54]

This is the third time in a little over a year that a CD containing a ‘scaled down’ version of a Mahler symphony has come to me for review. I must admit that, while recognising that yet another recording of a Mahler symphony is all too easily lost in the crowd, I find the idea of a listener preferring to listen to the Resurrection Symphony played by two pianists or, as here, Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand with the orchestra reduced to a solitary organ, perverse in the extreme. To do him justice David Briggs, the arranger responsible for the Eighth Symphony who plays on this recording makes a pro-active case for just such a procedure in his booklet notes for this CD. “The final apotheosis is completely overwhelming – even more so on the organ than the orchestra, in my humble opinion.” These are strong words, and unfortunately I cannot say that I find them justified in the event. Even such a relatively straightforward piece of writing as the lengthy prelude which opens Part Two of the symphony cannot begin to conjure up the atmosphere of the full orchestral sound that Mahler created there, and as soon as the textures begin to become more complex there are instances – which recur time and time again – when important thematic elements are obscured, inadequately balanced, or simply sound wrong. The exotic orchestral sounds that Mahler conjures for Mary of Egypt, with their prominent role for the mandolin, are completely distorted when heard on the organ even when the player is clearly making every effort to counterfeit the original effect.

But then it would seem that this arrangement is designed as much as anything else for the benefit of performers, enabling choirs and teams of vocal soloists to give their interpretations wider circulation without the enormous cost of providing a massive romantic orchestra. This is a real matter of importance for many societies; I remember some twenty years ago receiving a letter from the late Sir David Willocks in which he lamented the expense involved in mounting even such an economical work as Messiah. And one could also make a case that the use of organ instead of orchestra opens up the vocal solos to singers who no longer have to strain to produce the massive Wagnerian sound that is otherwise required in full-scale performances. As such, this arrangement would open up the chance of performances to amateur choral societies, rather than lying exclusively in the preserve of orchestras who are prepared to run to the cost of mounting occasional performances.

These considerations would seem to be particularly germane in the case of the tenor soloist taking the part of Doctor Marianus, where Mahler most inconsiderately calls for the services of a genuine heroic tenor who at the same time is asked to ascend into the stratosphere in a lyrical fashion that is simply way outside the scope of the many heldentenors who began their singing careers as baritones. Again I remember in the distant past hearing a performance with Alberto Remedios, whose voice would have seemed almost uniquely suited to the part, struggling in vain to rise to the high B natural and B flat which he was required to produce (not to mention the top C well-concealed among the tutti in the closing pages). The essentially lyric voice of John Tiranno is fine in the quieter passages, but in the more strenuous sections the sense of strain is all to palpable. The two sopranos in the final section, who have to manage the extremely difficult pianissimo transition from B flat in one part to B flat in the other, are marvellously effective in the hands of Rachel Rosales and Bryn Holdsworth; but elsewhere they show signs of unsteadiness, and the third soprano as the Mater Gloriosa, Jana McIntyre, is simply too close to the microphones. So too are the children’s chorus, who sound so much louder than the main mixed chorus that the results sound totally artificial. The two mezzos both sound rather fruity, and again their voices are not ideally steady. Tim Murray and Adam Lau as the two Fathers Ecstaticus and Profundus are both steadier of voice production; but both sound rather too politely ecclesiastical, especially the latter in his bitter tirades.

The problems of recording balance will not of course have perturbed the audience at this live performance, and the music still managed to make its effect – as shown by the seemingly interminable applause at the end. For those who would like a souvenir of the event, and for the performers themselves, this CD will be self-recommending, as indeed it will for those who would like to explore alternative aspects of the Mahler tradition (I note that David Briggs has also produced organ transcriptions of the Second, Third, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies). For other potential purchasers, this set cannot hope to replace one of the very many recommendable recordings with full orchestra; in a review a couple of years ago I noted that Solti’s 1971 recording still sounds pretty spectacular, either in its original CD form or its audio Blu-Ray remastering. Solti also manages, just, to get the complete symphony onto a single disc; but this new two-disc set does offer a complete text in the booklet together with a rather good English translation which is undeservedly anonymous. On the debit side there is only one track for each CD, with index points provided for those with players which can access them.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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