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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (1906) [79.41]
Orla Boylan (soprano), Celena Shafer (soprano), Amy Owens (soprano), Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo-soprano), Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano), Barry Banks (tenor), Markus Werba (baritone), Jordan Bisch (bass)
Mormon Tabernacle Choir, The Madeleine Choir School,
Utah Symphony Orchestra/Thierry Fischer
rec. live, 19 & 20 February 2016, Salt Lake Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, USA
Sung texts with English translations.

Any performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ is an event, owing to the large orchestral and choral forces plus vocal soloists required to present the work. In 2011 the year of the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death I was fortunate to report from a performance of his colossal choral Eighth Symphony played by Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle that was for me the pinnacle at the Musikfest Berlin 2011.

The Utah Symphony Orchestra recorded the Eighth Symphony with Maurice Abravanel in the studio back in 1963 on the Vanguard label. Now over fifty years later the Utah Symphony Orchestra has recorded the score again this time in live performance under its music director Thierry Fischer on Reference Recordings.

In the summer of 1906 Mahler, although disturbed by thoughts of his deteriorating abilities, wrote his Eighth Symphony in a burst of creative inspiration at Maiernigg in Southern Austria. It was Mahler who conducted the Münchner Philharmoniker in the first performance of the score given in 1910 at the Neue Musik-Festhalle, Munich using around a thousand performers. A critical and popular triumph at its introduction, the popularity of the work has been enduring. Designed in two parts, the first section is based on Latin text from the hymn ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’. Inspired by the hymn Mahler said, “I saw the whole piece immediately before my eyes, and only needed to write it down as though it were being dictated to me.” In the second and much longer part Mahler connects the text of the medieval Whitsun hymn ‘Chorus mysticus’ to the conclusion of Part II of Goethe’s Faust where the protagonist’s soul experiences a miraculous transformation. Scored for large orchestra, eight soloists, two mixed choirs and boys choir Mahler knew he had composed something extraordinary. In a letter to Willem Mengelberg Mahler wrote, “I have just completed my Eighth – it is the greatest thing that I have ever done. And so unique in content and form that it is impossible to describe it.”

The Eighth Symphony is Mahler’s pantheistic vision of life and the universe with which Thierry Fischer here conducts his vast choral and orchestral forces, who are very willing protagonists, to traverse this epic journey with thrilling results. Without wallowing in the lush sound world and delving pedantically into detail, Fischer gives a convincing and secure reading providing a significant drama of heightened intensity and contrasts. In this fiendishly difficult assignment Fischer is in inspired form and holds together these massive forces remarkably well adopting a well-judged pace. Fischer’s skill in building such thrillingly dramatic climaxes is outstanding, with a raw power that at times sounds almost barbaric. The players are to be applauded for their dedication in a striking performance that despite some slight unevenness is a credit to all concerned.

Fischer’s eight soloists perform quite splendidly. I especially enjoyed the attractive tone of baritone Markus Werba (Pater ecstaticus) and the bright, expressive and potent voice of tenor Barry Banks (Doctor Marianus) in this challenging role. The resonant and sturdy tone of bass Jordon Bisch is outstanding in the Pater Profundus crowning his performance with the words, ‘O Gott! beschwichtige die Gedanken, Erleuchte mein bedürftig Herz!’ (O God, soothe my thoughts, enlighten my needful heart). A special highlight is soprano Amy Owens, singing the two lines of Mater Gloriosa (the Virgin Mary) with reverential beauty. Soprano Celena Shafer excels as Una Poenitentium (formally Gretchen), and is in excellent voice both appealing and expressive.

Recorded at Salt Lake Tabernacle, the Soundmirror team from Boston on this hybrid SACD has worked wonders with the challenges of this work and location, proving clarity, presence and satisfying balance. The booklet notes are as good as I have come to expect from the Reference Recordings label containing a helpful essay, biographies of the conductor, principal soloists, orchestra and choruses and most importantly sung texts with English translations. Even the names of the orchestra and chorus members are included in the booklet, however an omission is not providing the title of the roles sung by the five women soloists.

The discography of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony provides good choice and I have whittled my recommendations down to two recordings. Leonard Bernstein’s recording with Wiener Philharmoniker has plenty of thrilling drama live from Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg in 1975. Bernstein’s eight soloists are Margaret Price, Judith Blegen, Gerti Zeumer, Trudeliese Schmidt, Agnes Baltsa, Kenneth Riegel, Hermann Prey, José van Dam on Deutsche Grammophon. Also worthy of praise is the powerful 1970 account from Rafael Kubelik conducting Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunk. Recorded live at Kongreßsalle des Deutsches Museum, Munich the eight soloists that Kubelik employs are Martina Arroyo, Erna Spoorenberg, Edith Mathis, Julia Hamari, Norma Procter, Donald Grobe, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Franz Crass on the Audite label.
This recording from Salt Lake City is an impressive achievement with Thierry Fischer and his performers providing a compelling and memorable sense of occasion.

Michael Cookson
Previous review: John Quinn


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