Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 8,
“Symphony of a Thousand”
Pierre Boulez, cond; Twyla Robinson (
); Erin Wall (
); Adriane Queiroz (
); Michelle DeYoung (
); Simone Schröder (
); Johan Botha (
); Hanno Müller-Brachmann (
); Robert Holl (
); German Op Ch, Berlin (Eberhard Friedrich, dir); Berlin RCh (Simon Halsey, dir); Aurelius Boys’ Ch Calw; Staatskapelle Berlin
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 001038102 (2 CDs: 85:16
Text and Translation)
When I saw advertisements for this recording, which has been available in Europe for some months, I wondered why it was being released only in stereo, since several previous Boulez performances have been released in excellent SACD versions. What’s more, three recent Eighths—Chailly’s, Nagano’s, and Rattle’s—have been released in enhanced versions. All such thoughts were banished by the first notes of this performance: floor-shuddering organ tones anchor an expansive, full-throated production that amply fills the soundstage with voices and instruments; soloists are front and center but are not unnaturally spotlit. Boulez’s is the most exciting first movement since Solti’s nearly 40-year-old recording, charging out of the gate with no let up until “Infirma nostri corporis,” where the conductor slows appropriately; the second appearance of this verse slows the pace in similar fashion, as does a majestically scaled “Gloria patri domino.” Boulez projects a superb sense of dramatic pacing, right up to the splendid final chorus. The soloists are some of the strongest on record, with Twyla Robinson—sweet-voiced but strong—and Johan Botha—lyrical but possessing Heldentenor strength—the most impressive of an outstanding team. The choral singing can’t be faulted.
After the voices that dominate part I, the Berlin orchestra takes center-stage for Mahler’s dramatic cantata. One is again aware of the Boulez penchant for precision, but also of the vivid sound of this orchestra. I heard Boulez conduct the Eighth in New York with the Philharmonic in the mid 1970s, and my dim recollection is of a freight train of a first movement and of a v-e-r-y slow second. This performance of part II attains a weighty sense of anticipation, which leads to the choral entry at “Walsung, sie schwankt heran.” One might argue that Boulez strains the
marking (track 2), but there’s no denying the tension that he builds. The Pater ecstaticus of Hanno Müller-Brachmann must deal with Boulez’s tempo, too, but the baritone manages heroically. Robert Holl attains Wotan-like proportions as Pater profundus, but some listeners may be bothered by his pronounced vibrato.
The choruses sound angelic indeed as the episodes mount higher into the heavenly realm, and the interplay of voices and instruments exposes Mahler’s often chamber-like orchestration. The Doctor Marianus of Botha, so reminiscent of the great Kenneth Riegel (on the often unjustly overlooked Ozawa recording), exhibits tenderness as well as strength without any sign of strain. His “Blicket auf” is inspiring. The lovely interlude featuring the harp and harmonium is a perfect combination of terrestrial and unearthly beauty. The other singular touches—mandolin and celesta-harmonium duo—sound not exotic but otherworldly. Twyla Robinson excels again as Magna peccatrix, and Michelle DeYoung further establishes her Mahler credentials in her appearance as Mulier Samaritana—her diction is impeccable. The ringing soprano of Erin Wall in her appearances as “the penitent one” is yet another vocal highlight.
Mater gloriosa sounds from just above the chorus, and not too distantly, but is effective nonetheless. Boulez once again shows his architectonic mastery as the finale builds to a transcendent “Alles vergängliche” and then to the powerful coda, aided again by the (digital) organ.
The Eighth brings out the best in many conductors. Klaus Tennstedt and Simon Rattle crowned their surveys of the symphonies with performances of the Eighth that won over critics who had taken issue with some of their earlier recordings. Those two are near the top of my own list, still crowned by Solti’s Decca recording. I will need to make room on that summit for this new DG, however, which can stand comparison with any of the aforementioned. It will be interesting to see how Tilson Thomas’s eventual Eighth will measure up.
Altogether, this is a triumphant conclusion to a Mahler cycle that, to me, is best in its grander moments, such as the Second and Third from Vienna, and now this magisterial Eighth. The recent DVD of the Second Symphony, featuring this same splendid orchestra, leads one to hope that a video companion to this CD might soon be released, a fitting tribute to the maestro in his 82nd year.
FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 8 in E flat major "Symphony of A Thousand" by Gustav Mahler
Michelle DeYoung (Mezzo Soprano),
Twyla Robinson (Soprano),
Johan Botha (Tenor)
Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra,
Berlin Radio Chorus,
Berlin State Opera Chorus
Written: 1906; Vienna, Austria
Length: 85 Minutes 16 Secs.
Notes: This selection is sung in German and Latin.
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