Notes and Editorial Reviews
A superb rendition of a great masterpiece well captured.
There is a saying that it is easier to get the proverbial camel through the eye of a needle than it is to get Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 onto disk. Many have tried and there are over two dozen recordings in the current catalogue. Many have failed – some only just missing the mark. With such strong competition any recording has to meet exacting standards.
I have had something of an obsession with this work ever since I first heard it on the radio and LP in the 1970s. I experienced my first live Prom performance in the early 1980s and performed it as a chorus member in the 1990s. It is a huge undertaking and the music ranges from the most
earth-shattering fortissimos to the chamber music intimacy of just two or three instruments. In fact, when you look at the score it is amazing the number of times Mahler calls for small forces. This produces a myriad problems for the engineers. Judgments have to be made which affect the finished result and which can make or break the end product. Recording live, as we have here, creates a further problem of getting the balance right where there is no opportunity to have a second or third ‘take’ if a mistake is made.
The symphony is divided into two parts which are generally accepted as forming the four movements of the classical symphony. The first part represents the standard sonata-form opening movement, with the second part comprising the slow movement, scherzo and finale. The text for the first part is the hymn
Veni, Creator Spiritus by Hrabanus Maurus, the ninth-century archbishop of Mainz, and for the second part the final scene from Goethe’s
Faust. These are not such a disparate choice as they both deal with redemption, and Mahler also links them using musical themes.
The present recording is a re-issue of the one first seen in 2005. It captures a live concerts given in Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Drawing on more than one performance gave engineers the chance to use sections from each to iron out any errors. Going by the absence of applause at the end I wonder if some of this was done when there was no audience present – during rehearsals perhaps.
The opening section is marked
Allegro Impetuoso and starts with an E flat chord on the organ and a great shout of
Veni, creator spiritus from the choirs. The tempo chosen by Rattle gives great impetus which is fitting for the start of what is a classically proportioned symphony. The combined choirs have a solid sound and carry the music forward making all the details tell. This leads to the second subject and to the words
Imple superma gratia which introduces the soloists. Rattle has a splendid team led by Christine Brewer. In this first part they must work as an integrated team and this is where many recordings fail. The writing for the tenor is often particularly high in the voice when others are low in theirs; indeed, at some points he is higher in real pitch than the two altos. If he is not careful he can become too prominent. Jon Villars seems acutely aware of this problem but overcompensates and sometimes disappears from view. In spite of this small failing, they all acquit themselves well and have a good sense of ensemble which carries us to the central development section. This is pushed forward with the choirs ploughing through the double fugue and arriving at the thrilling climax of the
Veni, creator spiritus of the opening. This marks the start of the recapitulation. Sometimes this section can lose its urgency and become flaccid causing the movement to ‘sag’ just when it needs to be kept bright and alive. Rattle and his forces never lose sight of the structure and keep this impetus right up to the final
Gloria section. This is, I think, the section Mahler was referring to when he said that it was no longer human voices but planets and suns revolving. The final pages fly into the stratosphere, with the offstage brass pealing out, and the emphatic E flat chord from choirs and orchestra bringing a triumphant end to the first part of the symphony.
Comparisons with other live recordings are interesting. Kent Nagano with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester in Berlin (Harmonia Mundi), does not have as good a team of soloists. Sopranos, Sylvia Greenberg and Lynne Dawson both seem over-parted and the tenor (Robert Gambill) trying to hone down his voice gives a strained, pinched quality to the sound. Nagano also has an irritating habit of slowing into nearly every cadence, which may be appropriate sometimes, but in this work becomes a mannerism not in keeping with a classical first movement format.
Colin Davis with the Bavarian Radio forces (RCA) has a more reverberant acoustic but this leads to a more distant sound. This results in a loss of the impact and the thrills of this movement from the choirs. He is also hampered by soloists who don’t sing quietly when required – many entries marked
pp are sung at a good healthy
forte. Having two ‘Turandots’ as sopranos (Alessandra Marc and Sharon Sweet) means that in the very loud passages they are heard clearly, but in the introspective ones the sound is just too full. This fault is not just restricted to the sopranos either.
The earliest stereo recording I have is the BBC one from 1959 with Jascha Horenstein conducting (BBC Legends), what was then very unfamiliar music, in the Royal Albert Hall in London. This venue gives its own aura to any large-scale performance. You can feel the adrenaline flowing within the performers who are, for the most part, in uncharted territory. Horenstein gives a luminous interpretation of this first movement with the only blot on the landscape being the tenor soloist’s wrong entry just before figure 36 where he is one bar late. However, the recording is marred by the audience coughing which is intrusive in places.
The ‘touchstone’, to my mind, is the studio recording by Solti (Decca). He has the benefit of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Viennese choirs, and a first rate team of soloists headed by the sopranos Heather Harper and Lucia Popp. The venue is the Sofiensaal in Vienna. This first part has an architecture skilfully crafted by Solti - who is sometimes criticised for driving music too hard - whose extrovert manner suits this magnificent music. The adrenaline rush is just as evident as it is in the Horenstein. The CD, however, has a much brighter sound than the original LPs.
And so on to the more diverse and difficult to bring off second part. In this the soloists are required to portray individual characters in the final scene from Goethe’s
Faust. There Faust’s immortal soul is transported heavenward and saved by the ‘Eternal feminine’.
The first section is the equivalent of the classical symphony slow movement and begins with an orchestral introduction depicting wilderness, mountains, forests, gorges and finally we hear anchorites scattered about the scene. Mahler uses the theme first heard in Part 1 to the words
Acende lumens sensibus, but here it is played quietly by pizzicato basses. Above this the woodwind weave among themselves. The conductor who follows Mahler’s dynamic markings makes the best effect; there are fortissimo markings for individual instruments (oboe here and clarinet there) set against pianissimo chords from the rest of the wind section. Rattle is better than most here with nice differentiation of the dynamics. Nagano is better, but the slowing down for each cadence is well evident again. The chorus of anchorites is well spread across the stereo spectrum for the echo effects, with a nice balance at
Ehren geweihten Ort – one of the magical moments in this score.
The first soloist is the baritone with a short solo as
Pater Ecstaticus. David Wilson-Johnson is one of the best in this passage and is certainly better than John Shirley-Quirk for Solti whose covered tone distorts the words. Davis has Sergei Leiferkus who is much freer in his highest register. Nagano is so slow in this that his baritone does struggle. This is followed by the bass John Relyea as
Pater Profundus who sings firm sound and deliver good pointing of the text. However, Solti has the best of the singers with Martti Talvela.
This leads to what can be described as the Scherzo of the symphony. The various combinations of choirs take the parts of various angels, singing with refreshingly light tone. There isn’t much between the choirs on the other recordings and all do justice to this music. The tenor Jon Villars as
Doctor Marianus emerges from the choirs for his difficult solo. He sounds rather rushed at first, but soon settles down, the only problem being that the tone sounds tight in the higher register. Of all the tenors on these recordings only Rene Kollo for Solti sounds anywhere near at ease.
This takes us into the Finale proper and to one of the most sublime moments of this symphony – the appearance of
Mater Gloriosa to a melody of such sweetness that it is hard to imagine anyone not doing it justice. It starts with violins accompanied by harmonium and harp. Rattle is quite sublime in this with the strings playing with superb tone. As with Solti, a judicious tempo that has a ‘right’ feel about it. Nagano is so slow that the music is in danger of grinding to a halt which ruins the atmosphere he is trying so hard to create.
The next section is for the three penitent women (
Magna Peccatrix, Mulier Samaritana and
Maria Aegyptiaca) the three ladies here make a splendid trio singing with sensitivity and grace. Soile Isokoski as
Una Poenitentium is luxury casting and she gives a delightful rendition of this solo part, second only to Solti’s Lucia Popp who is, I believe, unsurpassed in this. In the other recordings the tempo is slow and the singers are placed under difficulties by this. Nagano’s Lynne Dawson is so stretched by
Una Poenitentium that it makes uncomfortable listening. Finally, we come to
Mater Gloriosa. Solti has the best of the singers with Arleen Auger, but all the recordings do well with this solo which lasts all of 25 bars.
Doctor Marianus with the choirs takes us to a thrilling climax which melts into the final coda, started by all the choirs singing
ppp – a magical effect enhanced by the fact that the basses of the choirs descend from a bottom E flat
down to the B flat below the bass stave. The choirs for Rattle achieve a homogeneous sound setting the right atmosphere for the first soprano to soar up to a high C with ease. I have heard this passage sung by a world famous soprano where her tone was so acid I’m sure it would peel the paint off the woodwork! So, full marks to Christine Brewer. The sound builds from there to an earth-shattering climax on the words
Das ewig Weibliche zeit uns hinan ‘The ever feminine leads us onward’ and an orchestral postlude which, I’m sure, raised the roof of Symphony Hall.
This current recording is a superb rendition of a great masterpiece well captured by the engineers. Rattle is handsomely served by his soloists, choirs and orchestra and his interpretation is among the best around; he has an innate sense of the sweep of the piece which he carries to the very last bars. Of the recordings I have used to compare, Nagano, although also well recorded, is spoiled by his self-conscious slowing into cadences and very second rate singing from the soloists. Davis is hampered by soloists who are too loud - or microphone placement which is too close, perhaps. The Horenstein is really only for those who want a record of what must have been a momentous occasion – fine though the performance is. The Solti recording remains the one to be reckoned with, but Rattle runs it very close and I wouldn’t want to be without either.
The booklet has an essay about the symphony, a cast list, and track-listing but no text or translations.
-- Arther Smith, MusicWeb International
It seems only fitting that Rattle should conclude his Mahler series conducting the orchestra with which his Mahler performances first attracted serious international attention, with their recording of the Second Symphony in 1987. And there would be some justice in crediting Rattle as a driving force in the creation of the location of this recording: Symphony Hall in Birmingham.
The opening of the symphony is suitably commanding, but the sound has less impact than I would have expected: both Tennstedt on EMI and the classic Solti Decca recording open with startling salvos from the massed forces, with particularly deep-toned organ pedals. The auditory perspective of the new recording recreates a more natural acoustic balance; the earlier two—especially the Solti—tend to engulf the listener; not exactly concert hall perspective perhaps, but terribly exciting. The new recording is blessed with superb clarity, however: the choral voices emerge with impressive distinctness, and even the mandolin in the second movement is present and accounted for. The soloists are very much in the foreground, tending to dominate the sound of the orchestra to some degree when both are in full cry (and Sir Simon’s own exertions are also quite audible). But, especially for a live recording, this is a very satisfactory sound production.
Tempos in the “Veni, creator spiritus” are mostly on the moderate side, though there is a tendency to highlight some sections—notably “Infirma nostri corporis”—by slowing; by and large, though, the momentum of this first movement is maintained. The closing “Gloria Patri Domino” rings with conviction.
The opening of the second movement is deep, slow-paced, and menacing, with contrasting warmth in the major-mode interjections. Orchestral balance and clarity are more noticeable here than in the first movement, probably partly because the scoring is less dense and more episodic. The low-toned instruments are so well reproduced, the section “Waldung, sie schwankt heran” sounds even more Wagnerian than usual. David Wilson-Johnson sings the “Ewiger Wonnebrand” of Pater Ecstaticus with conviction, if with less character than John Shirley-Quirk for Solti or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for Kubelík (DG). The Pater Profundus of John Relyea adds a touch of drama, though not quite on the scale of either Donald McIntyre for Bernstein (CBS/Sony) or Martti Talvela for Solti, both Wagnerians of note. Jon Villars seems occasionally to be straining in his solos as Dr. Marianus. Birgit Remmert is more persuasive as Mulier Samaritana than she was as the soloist in the Rattle Mahler 4, where her plush, mature voice seemed misplaced. The Mater Gloriosa of Juliane Banse reaches us from the heights of the hall, to terrific effect. The soloists, taken altogether, are adequate to very good, though less impressive than the stellar casts gathered by Bernstein (CBS/Sony) and Solti.
The choral work, on the other hand, is beyond reproach. The two choruses of young people are well integrated, and the diction of all concerned is exemplary. There is no loss of impact or refinement from the orchestra—one can readily understand why Sir Simon chose to come home, as it were, to complete his Mahler odyssey. One’s reaction to this performance will, no doubt, be conditioned by one’s preferences in previous recordings. My own benchmark recording is still the Solti, and in its latest reissue, as one of the Decca Legends, it has not been equaled for its sense of occasion and sheer auditory impact. But this new performance is certainly the equal of the Tennstedt, itself a celebrated final installment of a complete cycle of the symphonies. The Rattle deserves to be heard by Mahlerites and anyone else attracted to choral music with more than a hint of drama.
Christopher Abbot, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 8 in E flat major "Symphony of A Thousand" by Gustav Mahler
John Relyea (Bass),
Jane Henschel (Mezzo Soprano),
Jon Villars (Tenor),
Birgit Remmert (Mezzo Soprano),
Juliane Banse (Soprano),
Soile Isokoski (Soprano),
Christine Brewer (Soprano),
David Wilson-Johnson (Baritone)
London Symphony Chorus,
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra,
Toronto Children's Chorus
Written: 1906; Vienna, Austria
Date of Recording: 06/2004
Venue: Live Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England
Length: 77 Minutes 36 Secs.
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