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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand) (1906) [77:22]
Viktoria Yastrebova, Ailish Tynan, Ludmila Dudinova (sopranos)
Lilli Paasikivi, Zlata Bulycheva (mezzo-sopranos)
Sergey Semishkur (tenor)
Alexey Markov (baritone)
Evgeny Nikitin (bass)
Choir of Eltham College
Choral Arts Society Washington
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, St. Paul's Cathedral, London, July 2008
ALTO ALC1408 [77:22]

After reports of Valery Gergiev's heavyhanded Italian operas at the MET and shambolic renderings of even his native Russian repertoire elsewhere, I'd taken pains to avoid the conductor's "LSO Live" Mahler cycle when it first appeared. So I was pleasantly surprised by this reissue, which goes rather well.

The good news first: Gergiev displays a good feeling for the style and an understanding of the music's textural and sonorous requirements. Tempi are propulsive, even in the more introspective passages of Part Two, which can go static. Aided by alert, incisive articulations - once past a soggy opening organ point - the conductor shapes the music buoyantly, and takes care that principal lines at mezzoforte and up - there's a reason for that proviso - cut clearly through the textures. In the introduction to Part Two, he ties together the various strands straightforwardly - the little woodwind march is piquant, and their aspiring lines later have a lovely clarity - and infuses the home stretch with a nice sense of "lift." Gergiev is also sensitive to character and expression - settling nicely, for example, into the lyrical Lumen accende in Part One - so it's surprising that he doesn't bother setting up its recap as an important arrival point: he just rams through it as a propulsive din.

Now to the less good news. As the score's nickname suggests, the score requires a considerable number of performers - if not quite a thousand - and,thus, a sizable venue as well. St. Paul's Cathedral offers the requisite physical capacity and suggests an appropriate sense of occasion as well, but the swimmy acoustic - reflected in the long overhang after each movement - does the music few favours. Everything more or less "sounds good," but numerous motifs stay buried in the midrange; you can argue they still function propulsively, but I'd like actually to hear them. The echo fills in the composer's sparser textures, reducing the needed aural contrast; sometimes, Gergiev registers a change in mood, but the corresponding colour change is lost. Elsewhere, diverse musical strands fail to cohere into a unified sonority. You just don't know.
The busy grandiosity of Part One seems to inspire all the participants to their most attentive work, but, in the course of Part Two, the difficulties of maintaining coördination under these acoustic circumstances seem gradually to wear everyone out. There are a number of soggy sectional landings - the smudged organ-and-choral attack on the peroration particularly hurts; at the end of track 10, the tutti immediately after "es ist gelaugen" is markedly chaotic; and two prominent solos begin a beat late.
Speaking of the soloists, whom I hadn't forgotten, they're mostly fine, though the record company, has done us a disservice by not identifying which female soloists are singing which parts; unfortunately, even other online reviews didn't afford more detailed information. I can say that the two principal sopranos ride the sustained B-flats and Cs with assurance - the first soprano sounds floatier, the second fuller - and that both altos are lustrous and heartfelt. (Part Two's little fugues for three women, alas, don't balance well.) Sergey Semishkur sounds both overparted and overwhelmed in Part One - he and his unidentified alto partner don't blend at all - but comes into his own as Doctor Marianus, undaunted by the range and tessitura. Oddly, the Pater Profundus, Evgeny Nikitin, sounds clearer and more compact than the Pater Ecstaticus, Alexey Markov; neither has any problem with their respective high notes. The Mater Gloriosa sounds too light, and I wasn't convinced that her B-flat quite got all the way up.

The massed choruses are good, to the extent we can hear them properly; the first sopranos are unfazed by the demands at the end of each movement. In Part Two, some of the soft entries are pretty much inaudible, swallowed in the ambience, and the tenors occasionally sound a bit "heady" the wrong way, with open, shallow vowels.

While I'm glad to have heard Gergiev in such good form, this remains a souvenir of an occasion - as any concert Eighth must be - rather than a basic library choice. To my ears, Solti (Decca) best recreates the score's sonorous splendor, Ozawa (formerly Philips) its shimmering colours; Kubelik (DG), though too closely miked, offers a splendid array of soloists. Among recent entries, Nézet-Séguin's (DG) is orchestrally exciting, though the solo lineup is miscast and mismatched.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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