Mahler's Symphony No 8, 'Symphony of a Thousand'
The Gramophone Choice
Julia Varady, Jane Eaglen, Susan Bullock sops Trudeliese Schmidt, Jadwiga Rappé contrs Kenneth Riegel ten Eike Wilm Schulte bar Hans Sotin bass Eton College Boys’ Choir; London Symphony Chorus; London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / Klaus Tennstedt
LPO LPO0052 (87’ · DDD · T/t). Recorded live 1991. Buy from Amazon
With the biggest upbeat in music (and from days when the Royal Festival Hall organ was complete!), Mahler’s hymnic invocation swept all before it. It was almost as if Tennstedt was striving to compensate for the constrictive sound of the hall by building the spatial perspective into his reading. But what we lost in breadth and magnitude (the acoustic was much drier then), we gained in an all-enveloping and electrifying immediacy.
As the fervour mounts to fever pitch – his sopranos Julia Varady and Jane Eaglen hurling out top Cs like they could be the last they ever sing – one almost doesn’t notice that the tempo is getting broader and broader. Tennstedt is one of the few conductors to almost convince that impetus has nothing to do with speed. And, of course, though there is no ritardando marked in the momentous bars leading to the point of recapitulation, Tennstedt (who was nothing if not a traditionalist) is having none of it – the heavens duly open but in the certain knowledge that they will do so again, only bigger, with the Chorus Mysticus.
Part 2 begins with a poco adagio which, thanks to the kind of high-intensity string-playing only Tennstedt could elicit from the LPO, tugs at the emotional fabric of the music as few dared to do. To some it will feel overwrought, to most (or at least to staunch Mahlerians) it will be another instance of Tennstedt’s total identification with this music. His painting of the Faust scene is characteristically craggy, with the arrival of the Doctor’s heavenly escort prompting angelic high jinks far rougher and readier in tone than in some accounts. So, too, the casting of the male soloists, with Kenneth Riegel’s Doctor Marianus eschewing head voice for an often pained rendition of the cruelly high tessitura.
But as the Mater Gloriosa duly floats into view (the lovely Susan Bullock) and the force of love becomes unstoppable, Tennstedt is overwhelming. Try topping the orchestral peroration, offstage trumpets stretching the ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’ motif from the interval of a fifth beyond the octave to a heaven-storming ninth.
Heather Harper, Lucia Popp, Arleen Auger sops Yvonne Minton mez Helen Watts contr René Kollo ten John Shirley-Quirk bar Martti Talvela bass Vienna Boys’ Choir; Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Singverein; Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Sir Georg Solti
Decca 475 7521DOR (80‘ · ADD · T/t). Recorded 1971. Buy from Amazon
Of the so-called classic accounts of the Eighth Symphony, it’s Solti’s which most conscientiously sets out to convey an impression of large forces in a big performance space, this despite the obvious resort to compression and other forms of gerrymandering. Whatever the inconsistencies of Decca’s multi-miking and overdubbing, the overall effect remains powerful even today. The remastering has not eradicated all trace of distortion at the very end and, given the impressive flood of choral tone at the start of the ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’, it still seems a shame that the soloists and the Chicago brass are quite so prominent in its closing stages. As for the performance itself, Solti’s extrovert way with Part 1 works tremendously without quite erasing memories of Bernstein’s ecstatic fervour. In Part 2, it may be the patient Wagnerian mysticism of Tennstedt that sticks in the mind. Less inclined to delay, Solti makes the material sound more operatic. Yet for its gut-wrenching theatricality and great solo singing, Solti’s version is up there with the best.
Coupled with No 10 – Adagio
Erin Wall, Elza van den Heever, Laura Claycomb sops Katarina Karnéus, Yvonne Naef mezs Anthony Dean Griffey ten Quinn Kelsey bar James Morris bass-bar Pacific Boychoir; San Francisco Girls Chorus; San Francisco Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Michael Tilson Thomas
SFS Media/Avie 821936 0021-2 (111’ · DDD) Recorded live 2006 & 2008. Buy from Amazon
First, from a purely sonic standpoint, it’s pretty spectacular, most demonstrably in the closing sections of both halves, the ‘Glory to the Father’ especially, where the sound frame expands with such ease and amplitude that one wonders whether it can possibly carry on building, which it does. Tilson Thomas’s reading is always warm and spontaneous-sounding but its real strength lies in the way phrases connect so that what can sometimes seem, on certain versions, merely a series of episodes (specifically in the Symphony’s much longer second half) emerges very much ‘of a piece’. The rocky soundscape that opens Part 2 is wonderfully atmospheric though never at the expense of detail – again the recording delivers a very believable perspective – and Quinn Kelsey’s Pater Ecstaticus is one of the best-sung performances on the set, rather better than James Morris’s intense but wobbly Pater Profundis that follows on from it.
There’s that unforgettable passage, just before the closing chorus arrives, where, flute, clarinet, harp and celesta set up an ethereal pathway for the resplendent journey’s end. And in this context it has been quite a journey, Tilson Thomas drawing more colour and variety (tonal and emotional) from the score than almost any of his rivals, so with wonderful sound, superb playing and generally fine singing (soprano Erin Wall is exceptional) this new version rates among the top two or three.
Attitudes to the Tenth Symphony’s infinitely strange and at times deeply unsettling Adagio will depend largely on how you view the various performing versions of the whole work. If a completed Tenth is your chosen option, then the Adagio on its own won’t do. If, however, you view it as a movement that was bequeathed to us more or less intact, and forget about building a context, then Tilson Thomas’s probing performance is fairly eventful and deeply haunting, and – again – beautifully recorded.