Notes and Editorial Reviews
Jacob's Ladder, Schoenberg's incomplete, quasi-oratorio, dramatizes the Biblical tale in the composer's most astringent, dyspeptic style. Schoenberg's solo writing is intense and declamatory (especially that for Gabriel, here stunningly realized by baritone John Bröcheler), while the grim choral writing is of a similar quality to that found in Moses und Aron. However, what makes Jacob's Ladder work at all is the brilliantly dramatic interplay of the voices and orchestra, here rendered with astonishing acuity by Michael Gielen and his SWR forces.
The work features some of Schoenberg's trademark compositional devices, such as Sprechstimme, as well as his novel and unprecedented use of a "remote orchestra", relayed to the concert hall via loudspeakers. Having experienced the piece live at a Carnegie Hall performance by Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra (in which a pre-recording was substituted for the "remote" orchestra) I must say it works better on disc. First, you can better focus on what's going on in the orchestra (which is the most compelling component), and second, it's easier to absorb this complex and austere music when you aren't confined to your seat.
Following immediately after the Schoenberg, the radiant opening of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 seems like arriving at the gates of heaven after having escaped damnation. Gielen's unselfconsciously joyous reading is a trifle short on rhetorical grandeur (which for some will be a blessing) but instead revels in the music's wholesome euphony. It's a reading that emphasizes Mahler's brilliant motivic construction as well as his stunningly assured counterpoint. Thus, many primary and subsidiary melodic cues usually swamped by the massive forces (such as in the multi-layered first-movement fugual development) emerge here with a ringing yet unforced clarity.
Unforced describes Gielen's approach as a whole, as in the first-movement climax, which is not the expected epiphany but rather a wholly logical and satisfying release of the previously building harmonic tension. Best of all is the tremendous second-movement coda, where Gielen's flawless dramatic timing and careful balancing of choirs, brass, and percussion makes this passage truly transcendent. The soloists all perform with passionate conviction, but Margaret Jane Wray and Glenn Winslade deserve special mention for their richly characterful renderings of Una Poenitentium and Doctor Marianus. Again, the assembled choirs and the SWR Orchestra give fully of themselves in this inspiring and heartwarming rendition, captured in spacious, natural sound by Hänssler's engineers. While this may not be a heaven-storming Eighth in the manner of Bernstein or Tennstedt, it's one that offers more than a glimpse of paradise, and certainly satisfies on its own terms.
--Victor Carr Jr, ClassicsToday.com