Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
Although Symphony of a Thousand is a marketing title not authorized by Mahler, matters technical are a key concern in the performance of Mahler’s eighth symphony. In 1971 Philips recorded it quadraphonically. But because standard - and therefore widespread and viable - home reproducing equipment was never established, the recording was only issued in stereo - until this issue in SACD in Pentatone’s Remastered Quadro Recordings series. To retain the integrity of the original, only four channels - two front and two rear - are used. The question is does this significantly enhance the listening experience? Is it worth getting this version even if
you have the stereo?
I compared this Pentatone release with the stereo reissue I have in Haitink’s box set of complete Mahler symphonies (Philips 4420502), the only form in which it’s currently available. The stereo version has the two choirs clearly separated and is smoothly balanced but is a touch strident in the heavily scored passages, of which there are plenty in the opening hymn.
This Pentatone SACD is altogether more spacious and glowing, clear and thrilling in effect and with greater body. The fortissimo passages have considerably more impact, particularly those special occasions such as the return of the hymn opening (tr. 5, 4:58) when all sing or play fortissimo. Those separately stationed four trumpets and three trombones added at the climaxes of both parts (trs. 7, 2:53 and 21, 4:00) provide a visceral sound boost I haven’t heard on recordings before. The Concertgebouw acoustic is more recognisable. It’s more like being there. The transfer is also very smooth: the recording wears its years lightly. I didn’t notice any tape hiss. So if you like the interpretation it’s definitely worth getting this SACD. It remains, nevertheless, clearly a recording of analogue origin. The sound is bright but not astringent, clean textured and truthful to Haitink’s analytical care in revealing orchestration. But if you want a rich bass - which I don’t - you’ll be disappointed.
You might wonder if the CD layer of this Pentatone hybrid sounds better than the Philips original. I’d say it’s slightly smoother, less glaring and has a touch more perspective. But these are marginal differences in comparison with the SACD impact.
Part 1 of this symphony is a setting of the 9th century Latin hymn Veni, creator spiritus. Haitink begins in an eager and welcoming, heroic, even bouncy manner. The first section for soloists, ‘Imple superna gratia’ (tr. 2) establishes that their approach will be lyrical and ardent, especially the first soprano, Ileana Cotrubas. At ‘Infirma nostra corporis’ (tr. 3) and the change of key to D minor comes a murkier, softer chorus and spooky violin solo, whereupon the two soprano soloists’ entry, softer still, at ‘Virtute firmus perpeti’ (1:27) is yet more phantasmagoric.
The key moment, the change to E major and mass choruses’ acclamation ‘Accende lumen sensibus’ (tr. 5), is precipitous, the pause marked after the first ‘Ac’ barely felt. The march at ‘Hostem repellas’ (1:08) is starkly dramatic with screaming high notes tailing phrases, the ensuing double fugue rigorous yet also with something of exciting abandon about it. I was struck by the overall sense of spontaneity and commitment. The Gloria (tr. 7) is one expansive euphoric parade with all the stops thrillingly out at the end.
Part 2 is the final scene from Goethe’s Faust Part II. In the orchestral introduction Haitink gets a keen sense of atmosphere from the clarity of the opening soft cymbal stroke, the tingling tremolando strings and high woodwind tessitura, clarinet especially. This really is a new and uncertain environment; but the cellos’ warmth (tr. 8 1:18), supported by the horns’ response, is more memorable and comforting than the thrashing about of the elements which follow.
Groping choruses (tr. 10) portray anchorites pretty cowed by all this. So it’s good that Hermann Prey brings both lyrical ardour and edge to the Pater Estaticus’ plea (tr. 11) for eternal love with eloquent orchestral backing from Haitink. Hans Sotin has a more difficult task in the tortured nature of Pater Profundus’ plea (tr. 12), graphically aware of storm and stress, but having less momentous impact than Haitink.
At this moment Faust’s soul is borne up by angels and the significance of that earlier cellos’ and horns’ warmth becomes clear. These particular angels (tr. 13) are an eager lot and the blessed boys (0:25) have an appropriate raw directness. The female younger angels (tr. 14) then make a smooth, if somewhat soporific contrast. But they’re just a foil for the more perfect angels (tr. 15) in a suddenly hushed, hazy, incense-like and holy atmosphere in which the orchestration, opening with viola and violin solos, has suddenly become wonderfully transparent. Grafted on this at 0:58 comes a lovely, full-toned and emotive contralto solo, I presume from Birgit Finnila.
Now (tr. 16) Haitink reveals a starry orchestral backcloth for the younger angels and the entrance of Doctor Marianus. William Cochran has fitting refinement and lyricism if not much power, so it’s good the recording provides ample space around him. The entrance of the Virgin Mary (tr. 17) is sublimely achieved by Haitink. The glowing sound of the harmonium, not heard before, the tender strings with some delicate portamento, both as indicated in the score (e.g. 0:40, 1:04) and appropriate additions (e.g. 0:18, 0:32).
Enter the three women to plead for Faust’s soul (tr. 18). Ileana Cotrubas’s Magna Peccatrix has a pleasingly airy, relaxed ardour. Birgit Finnila’s Samaritan Woman is darker and more emotive. There’s a sinewy dramatic quality to Marianne Dieleman’s Egyptian Woman. Good to have contrast, while Cotrubas supplies the cream in their trio.
Another previously unheard instrument, the mandolin (tr. 18 from 5:10), also clearer than ever in this re-mastering, makes a suitable backcloth to the bright, eager witness of Heather Harper’s Penitent, a mood immediately caught by the boys’ choir and the orchestra which also becomes more animated. Hanneke van Bork’s response as the Virgin (tr. 19, 3:08) is positive as well as ethereal and Doctor Marianus’s prayer (tr. 20) spirited, whereupon orchestra and choruses open out in waves of ecstatic sound. Equally effective is from 4:41 the melting into the cool douche of flute and piccolo, rippling celesta and piano over harmonium.
As Faust’s soul and all the witnesses are drawn towards heaven, the closing Mystic Chorus (tr. 21) begins raptly but you sense it will also open out. In the mean-time, from 1:49 enjoy a lovely, appropriately chaste top C and B flat from Cotrubas, answered by B flats from Harper. Then prepare yourself for an overwhelming emotional and sonic experience which is the final chorus and orchestral postlude, here a spectacular blaze of sound, but difficult to enjoy to the full if you have near neighbours.
For comparison I turned to the most famous and renowned analogue recording, that made by Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Georg Solti in the same month in 1971 (Decca 4757521). Solti’s recording sounds more strident, the orchestra less prominent, two channels resulting in less clarity and density than four. Solti’s approach is more operatic, worldly, the chorus more lusty and rugged, the voices with more vibrato. This matches his more colourful realization of Mahler’s orchestration, whose ‘effects’ are more dramatic. Solti relishes the moment more vividly, Haitink relates it more farsightedly to the whole and accordingly has more of a visionary quality. Haitink doesn’t have the charisma of Solti, but this four channel release for me secures him an equal distinctiveness.
In Part 1 that key moment at ‘Accende lumen sensibus’ is realized more vividly by Solti because the pause after ‘Ac’ is more marked and the following march is of an even more highly charged fervour which approaches mass hysteria. Solti’s contrasts of tempo are more dynamic and apparent. This is why Solti’s timings are a little slower. His Part 1 takes 23:43 against Haitink’s 22:30. In Part 2 the respective timings are 56:21 and 53:13. Haitink’s tempi are subtler and seem more natural.
Solti’s orchestral introduction to Part 2 is more graphic and seems packed with more incident and dramatic shading, but his high woodwind don’t have as piercingly distinctive a sonority as Haitink’s. His anchorites are more wooden and throughout his boys’ choir more polite. Against Solti’s blazing orchestral backcloth John Shirley-Quirk’s Pater Estaticus needs a more valorous ardour than Prey’s greater naturalness, but Martti Talvela’s Pater Profundus has more dramatic and emotional impact than Hans Sotin. The same might be said of René Kollo’s Doctor Marianus, who is a touch less lyrical but projects more successfully than William Cochran.
Solti’s strings depicting the entrance of the Virgin Mary are rather sugary, but his three women make an animated trio, while Lucia Popp’s Penitent, light yet comely, shows more character than Heather Harper. Arleen Augér’s Virgin is more otherworldly than Hanneke van Bork. René Kollo is magnificently rapturous in Dr Marianus’ prayer, backed by a stirring chorus. Solti achieves a haunting pearly stillness before the Mystic Chorus which is at first rather fuzzy, though better at its full-throated climax. His soprano soloists’ high notes aren’t as telling as Haitink’s.
I’d say honours are pretty even between Solti and Haitink. I feel Mahler’s head would have appreciated Haitink’s more spiritual approach while his heart would have relished Solti’s barnstorming. I’m happy to have both, but if forced to choose would go for Haitink. And in four channels he now has the significantly better recording.
Haitink’s always finely considered, spiritually focussed interpretation has been given an impressive new lease of life in four channels.
-- Michael Greenhalgh, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 8 in E flat major "Symphony of A Thousand" by Gustav Mahler
Heather Harper (Soprano),
Kees de Wijs (Organ),
Ileana Cotrubas (Soprano),
Birgit Finnilä (Mezzo Soprano),
Hanneke van Bork (Soprano),
Marianne Dieleman (Mezzo Soprano),
William Cochran (Tenor),
Hermann Prey (Baritone),
Jo Juda (Violin),
Hans Sotin (Bass)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra,
Stern des Volks,
Amsterdam Toonkunst Chorus
Written: 1906; Vienna, Austria
Date of Recording: 09/1971
Venue: Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Length: 70 Minutes 45 Secs.
Notes: This selection is sung in German and Latin.
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