Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand

James McCarthy
Friday, July 6, 2012

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is the calling-card for all orchestras with ambition: but which ones should you welcome in, asks Ken Smith.(Originally published in Gramophone, December 2008.) 

As soon as I got the invitation I immediately called my wife to tell her why I’d be gone for the rest of the week. 'The Macau International Music Festival just asked me to sing in the chorus of Mahler’s Eighth,' I explained. 'Seems they did a head-count the other night and came up with only nine hundred and ninety-nine.'

Before she could figure out whether or not I was serious, I was already out the door. About Mahler’s infamous Symphony of a Thousand, I was very serious indeed. I don’t often feel the need to explore a piece from the inside, but this was a special case. Mahler’s Eighth Symphony has long been regarded as the biggest love letter in musical history ('Every note addressed to you', Mahler confessed to his wife, Alma), the most successful premiere of the 20th century (the initial Munich performances in 1910 being the composer’s first unqualified success), and the most reliable attention-getter in the repertoire ever since. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s US premiere in 1916 turned that institution from a financial drain to a civic asset. Nearly half a century later, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic celebrated the opening of Lincoln Center by performing the first movement. Now, whenever an orchestra, city or country wants to announce that it’s ready to be taken seriously, you can guess what’s on the programme. 

As a symphony, though, the piece’s standing has been less secure. Scored for huge orchestra, offstage brass section, organ, double chorus, boys’ choir and eight soloists, the piece could easily be termed a dramatic cantata or a secular oratorio (the composer poetically called it his Mass). But Mahler was an established symphonist who frequently used words to convey ideas, often writing music before a specific text was involved. Combined with the fact that the first movement incorporates sonata-allegro form, that generally puts the piece in the symphony category. 

That uneasy definition, though, still haunts even successful performances. As Mahler cycles began to proliferate, conductors who had provided memorable Second Symphonies or insightful Sevenths often fell noticeably short in the Eighth. More than any other piece, the Eighth Symphony requires a traffic cop – not only in directing the forces on stage, but in connecting the ideas and inner musical relationships in the score. A depressing number of fine orchestral performances have been dampered by the chorus, or by soloists not well integrated into the musical and emotional texture (though occasionally the reverse has been true). But many conductors, even after getting their musical forces into place, miss Mahler’s delicate duality, whereby a boisterous, polyphonic “Veni, Creator Spiritus” is answered by the more freely homophonic scene from Goethe’s Faust revelling in German Romanticism. The Latin Pentecost hymn must eventually reconcile with the idea of humanist salvation through the Eternal Feminine, but most performances emphasise those contrasts either too much or too little. 

As my stack of Mahler Eighths doubled in the past few years, it became apparent that it was finally time to re-evaluate the piece. Rehearsing in the chorus was the easy part; how does one navigate nearly 30 recordings? First, there’s industry history to consider, which sets archival live performances apart from studio efforts before returning to live recordings. Then there’s the composer’s history. A few years ago it became fashionable for those seeking 'the real Mahler' to focus first on ensembles that Mahler himself had conducted, namely the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Philharmonics of Vienna and New York. Given the nature of the Eighth Symphony, that seemed a pretty good place to start. 

The New World

After initiating the piece in 1906 and before conducting its Munich premiere in 1910, Mahler had served as principal conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and completed his first season as music director of the New York Philharmonic. One could easily overemphasise the effect of America on his music-making; Mahler himself derided the Munich concert producer’s 'Barnum and Bailey' marketing strategy (although Symphony of a Thousand was in fact a reasonably accurate accounting of the personnel involved: 858 singers and 171 instrumentalists). But other observers in Munich noted the piece’s 'American' dimensions, and no doubt that sense of raw spaciousness did shape the piece’s eventual realisation. Encountering Niagara Falls for the first time, Mahler had exclaimed, 'Fortissimo, at last!'

Coming back to my 1971 Decca studio recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the combined Vienna State Opera Chorus, Singverein and Vienna Boys Choir, I find that Georg Solti is still the reigning champion of the 'shock-and-awe' school. In terms of sheer orchestral brilliance, there’s simply no better ensemble captured more fully on record. Right from the opening organ blast, which was added later in the studio, Solti wields such command that no one element overshadows. 

A better cast of soloists has still never been assembled (even if others have sung with a better sense of ensemble), and the main forces complement each other perfectly, as if the chorus singing in Mahler’s mother tongue tempers the instrumentalists playing in his orchestral father tongue. The downside of all this is that in his zeal to find the drama, Solti often misses the poetry. Operatic intensity comes at the sacrifice of symphonic subtlety. Detractors have claimed that the sound is more Solti than Mahler – and there are several recordings that are arguably more musical – but still, as far as phrasing and control are concerned, no other performance builds, sustains and releases tension quite like this one. Solti is still the standard with which to compare all the others.

That didn’t bode well for Robert Shaw. Of all the conductors who made their mark with the piece, Shaw had the best grasp of the choral side of the equation. Given the size of his forces, there’s a surprising level of precision and clarity. The young Deborah Voigt and Heidi Grant stand out among the soloists. And although Shaw’s conception is more oratorio than opera, there’s a bit of déjà vu hearing his pacing, as this recording is only about 10 seconds shorter than Solti’s. Unfortunately, the comparisons end there. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is simply not the Chicago. It’s enough to bring out the military strategist in me: if Solti could insert an organ, why couldn’t someone airlift the Atlanta Symphony Chorus into, say, the Vienna Philharmonic? This is one case where I say with regret that the recording quality captures the orchestra perfectly, warts and all.

Putting Solti up against Leonard Bernstein, the most eminent of American Mahlerians, the Eighth Symphony is hardly a fair comparison, as the piece shows Solti at his best and Bernstein at his worst. Bernstein’s first recorded effort, a 1962 live recording of the 'Veni, Creator Spiritus' from the Lincoln Center opening concert, embodies a great sense of occasion, coming only two years after Bernstein had presided over the Mahler centenary festival at the New York Philharmonic. But without the contrasts in the second movement, nearly 24 minutes of breathless excitement seems a bit one-sided.

A few years later, as part of the first complete Mahler cycle in stereo, Bernstein’s 1966 performances with the London Symphony Orchestra essentially ushered in the modern era of studio Mahler Eighths (including the idea of recording the organ off-site). This time, though, Bernstein’s breathlessness often borders on recklessness, with a few tempi seemingly appearing for momentary effect rather than illuminating the piece. Not only does the chorus – a mix of professional and avocational British singers – lack Solti or Shaw’s level of clarity, but Bernstein lacks his usual sureness of touch with Mahler. The recording quality, even in Sony’s much-hyped transfer, is barely comparable.

The third time could have been the charm, as Bernstein’s later Mahler cycle on the whole took a broader, more thoughtful approach. But Bernstein’s plans for a New York Mahler Eighth were left unfulfilled at the conductor’s death, leaving Deutsche Grammophon to fill the collection with a live recording of Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic from the 1975 Salzburg Festival – a noticeably weak link in the cycle. 

A more intriguing alternative, recently released on DVD, is the video recording of Bernstein’s performance with the VPO later that year. Director Humphrey Burton does make the on-camera rounds of key vocalists and instrumentalists during their showcase moments, but this is mostly Bernstein’s show.

The Archive

The New York Philharmonic sometimes wears its 'unbroken Mahler tradition' a little too smugly – especially compared with the Vienna Philharmonic, where Mahler was unknown to many members after the Second World War. Even in America, New York has competitors, with Stokowski having championed the Eighth Symphony in Philadelphia two years before the piece was performed in Vienna. But no other orchestra in the world compares in terms of documenting that history, or – at least until the orchestra began neglecting its Special Edition archival recordings – in keeping its past back in the public ear. 

The strangest omission in the Philharmonic’s 1998 12-CD, 500-page Mahler compendium was any contribution by Bernstein. The most notable inclusion was a 1950 broadcast of the Eighth Symphony conducted by Leopold Stokowski, who had attended the piece’s 1910 Munich premiere under Mahler and used this occasion to mark his last appearance with the Philharmonic. Here, by any standards, is true musical authority, the music flowing of its own accord with vocal and instrumental phrasing perfectly matched. Sonically, however, it remains an archival document. The transfer is head and shoulders above previous pirate releases, but it in no way challenges modern recordings.

It does, however, go head to head fairly evenly with Jascha Horenstein’s 1959 live performance with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, which also came out in 1998 on BBC Legends. Unlike New York, London had heard the Eighth Symphony only three times before; unlike Stokowski, Horenstein had never before conducted the piece. Still, Horensetin’s performance all but ignited Britain’s Mahler revival. The reading is broader, less impulsive than Bernstein’s, made with more or less the same musicians seven years later. Perhaps allowing for the acoustics of the hall, Horenstein takes the opening rather slowly. But rather than alternating between gas and brakes, Horenstein finds a rather comfortable middle speed that can ease or advance with minimal effort, making the music’s dramatic effects – and the realisation that many of the ideas developed in the second movement had already been introduced in the first – emerge from the score rather than the podium. This is not the most beautiful playing by a long shot; several flubs would’ve been deleted in the studio, and the audience noise is equally distracting. But if you can listen past those imperfections the recording does offer a superb sense both of the piece and arguably its most perfect venue. 

Stokowski and Horenstein both fare better than Dimitri Mitropoulos’s live performance with the Vienna Philharmonic at the 1960 Salzburg Festival. The sound is generally clear, though exceedingly one-dimensional. Musically, Mitropoulos starts out even slower than Horenstein, but without the flexibility, nearly allowing the first movement to crumble beneath its majesty. In the second movement, that grandeur is much better placed; the performance works well as opera, in fact, but ultimately fails as a symphony, with the soloists remaining in their own realm rather than emerging from the orchestral texture. As for the rest of the forces, I’m not sure which is more frustrating: to realise that these are the same choruses that Solti used much more effectively a decade later, or to hear the out-of-tune brass (admittedly without the benefit of a second take) and realise this is not the Chicago Symphony.

The Old World

Inspiration from America notwithstanding, when Mahler called the Eighth Symphony “a gift to the entire nation” he wasn’t speaking to the ladies on the New York Philharmonic committee. This is a piece where the inherent conflicts in the first and second sections – between language and culture, historical period and general sentiments – reflect an undeniably European sensibility in an era of volatile transition. European conductors and musicians usually grasp that milieu intuitively, although that doesn’t always guarantee superb results.

Holding to my initial principle of Mahler conductivity, I reached for my only remaining recording of his key musical workshop: the Vienna Philharmonic. Lorin Maazel’s 1989 account for Sony was definitely a white-tie affair, with a superb roster of soloists and a top-notch choral line-up. It’s immediately obvious that both the singers and musicians are so attuned to Mahler’s music that they could perform it in their sleep. Before long, it sounds as if they’re doing precisely that, so little sense of purpose does the performance exude. From moment to moment, there’s some lovely, idiomatic playing, but there’s no clear sense of direction that sustains interest for the duration of the piece. This was a low point only until I started playing Bernhard Haitink’s 1971 Concertgebouw recording for Philips, which may well stand as the dullest contribution from a major orchestra in the catalogue. Perhaps this was a response to Solti’s bombast of the same period, but Haitink’s laid-back approach does no service to the music. Nor is the choral singing terribly distinguished. The women soloists so greatly overshadow the men that a true ensemble never has a chance to develop. A recent SACD release on Pentatone has made the overall sound considerably crisper, but does nothing to help the performance. 

Riccardo Chailly takes exactly the opposite approach, throwing plenty of interpretative weight into the Concertgebouw’s sound in his 2000 release on Decca. Objectively, this is a remarkable recording: strong orchestral playing, a graspable musical flow, and a gathering of vocal soloists that supremely understands the concept of ensemble. The only performance drawback is that the Prague Philharmonic Choir and the Netherlands Radio Choir never quite agree in articulation, disturbing the moments requiring utmost clarity. A more significant obstacle is Chailly’s interpretation, which often seems a reaction to Mahler rather than Mahler’s score. There are some surprises here – a subtler opening that does not take the audience by force, a highly mystical 'Faust' movement – but not all are equally convincing. Still, it’s exceedingly hard to believe this is the same orchestra that Haitink conducted 30 years before.

From the same neighbourhood, broadly speaking, comes Edo de Waart’s 1994 performance with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic for RCA Victor, which falls almost exactly between the blandness of Haitink and the idiosyncrasies of Chailly. The sound is comfortably warm and spacious, showcasing the second movement very nicely. The choruses are far superior to Chailly’s, and de Waart achieves a comparable freedom in the sound without totally imposing or removing his own personality. Ultimately, though, de Waart’s subtleties are less memorable than Chailly’s quirks.

Having covered Mahler’s various turfs with mixed results, I decided to get as far away as possible. Emil Tabakov’s 1991 version with the Sofia Philharmonic for Capriccio is the kind of recording you keep listening to, hoping it gets better. Alas, it never does. The chorus overpowers the orchestra in the first section, then seems miles away in the second. Playing is spotty, the miking amateurish at best. I then turned to Antoni Wit’s 2005 account with the Warsaw National Philharmonic for Naxos, which was musically solid without being showy. Mastering both the broad and small strokes, Wit sets comfortable tempi while coaxing a rare level of subtlety from his players. Choruses are clean and precise; soloists well balanced and integrated into the orchestral texture. My only complaint is an overly resonant acoustic, but Wit generally finds ways to make it work, mostly by stretching the tempi. After the Warsaw, which ran 81 minutes, Neeme Järvi’s 1994 performance with the Gothenburg Symphony on BIS clocks in at 70 minutes. Strangely, the piece never feels hurried, and the performance comes together seamlessly, which makes me question anyone who cites tempo as a primary indicator of good Mahler.

Klaus Tennstedt’s 1986 account with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir is generally beloved by the anti-Solti camp, and indeed his approach stands in great contrast. Where Solti is extroverted, Tennstedt is introspective; where Solti’s soloists and chorus command attention on their own, Tennstedt’s vocal forces emerge gradually from within the symphonic texture. The concept fully respects the integrity of the piece as a symphony, but in practice the organ and chorus end up sounding fairly anaemic, like amplifying a piano at the expense of the violin in a sonata. Tennstedt, though, is utterly at home, and the clarity of ideas in this 1987 Gramophone Award-winner still holds up.

Simon Rattle’s 2004 live recording with the CBSO for EMI brings to mind elements of both Solti and Shaw – as if Solti were encountering an orchestra more provincial than Chicago, or Atlanta was facing a conductor not so out of his depth. On his own terms, Rattle brings Solti-like attention to the piece, but instead of focusing energies on shaping phrases for dramatic effect, Rattle illuminates the inner details that often pass unnoticed. In the end, sober commitment wins over emotional intensity. The recording, though, lacks Decca or Telarc quality: soloists (who are on a par with Shaw’s rather than Solti’s) have a bit too much prominence, the chorus not quite enough. 

My pile of German orchestra recordings started looking less formidable the more I started listening. Eliahu Inbal’s 1986 studio effort with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony for Denon was fine interpretatively, but the playing lacked control and discipline. Rafael Kubelík’s account with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for DG, almost exactly contemporaneous with Solti, was perhaps the original anti-Solti in approach and has probably suffered as a result. A bigger problem, though, is the sloppy winds and brass and a mismatched line-up of soloists. Colin Davis has a different vocalist problem in his 1996 recording with that orchestra for RCA Victor: a superb symphonic choral approach is nearly derailed by a team of operatic soloists who seem to be performing an entirely different work.

A German recording fully worthy of attention is Claudio Abbado’s 1994 performance with the Berlin Philharmonic for DG, the breadth of which contrasts with Solti’s single-minded momentum. Not that Abbado doesn’t move the piece, he just does so on Mahler’s terms rather than dictating from the podium. The soloists are good but misbalanced (stand-outs this time are the men, including Bryn Terfel and Peter Seiffert); the chorus neither weak nor dominating. The real star, however, is the orchestra, which plays with a deep sense of the composer’s idiom that few in the world can match.

A musical surprise was Gary Bertini’s live Tokyo performance of the Eighth Symphony with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, originally released on EMI in 1991. Later included as part of EMI’s eminently affordable Bertini Mahler cycle a couple of years ago, it was the highlight of the collection and remains consistently illuminating. Rarely does a tempo seem out of place, nor does the orchestra ever fall short technically or musically. Alan Titus is the stand-out in a superb cast of singers. 

Two recordings, now, by Michael Gielen: first, his 1981 live recording by Opernhaus und Museumorchester Frankfurt. Gielen’s coolly analytical approach, neither emotionally charged nor mystically exalted, is balanced by a palpably energetic performance – not lively enough to make this a primary choice, but at Sony’s bargain price maybe a second or third. His 1998 recording with the SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg, however, is another world entirely. Not that he’s completely forsaken his obsession with counterpoint and thematic development, but this time there’s more leeway for the heart – and the ears – in making beautiful sound for its own sake. Hänssler has not only captured the sound beautifully, but in pairing it with Schoenberg’s Jacob’s Ladder on its 2002 release, the label has nearly assured that Gielen achieves the Eighth Symphony’s sense of transcendence practically from its opening down-beat. 

Kent Nagano’s 2005 release with the Berlin Deutsche Symphony Orchestra on Harmonia Mundi is yet another anti-Solti: where Solti pushes forward, Nagano dwells. Where others hammer us into submission, Nagano charms. Where others find transcendence in reaching their destination, Nagano focuses on the mystery and sensuality of the journey. The dangers are obvious, and Nagano’s major problem is keeping momentum. Although most of the elements are superbly in place and brilliantly recorded – the orchestra shimmering, a chorus precise yet atmospheric, an organ that doesn’t seem like an afterthought – after some 88 minutes everyone seems to forget where they’re going. 

I had already been contemplating a dream performance of Mahler’s Eighth, one that combines the strengths of other recordings while downplaying their weaknesses (my own anti-Solti, if you will), when I encountered Pierre Boulez’s recording with the Berlin Staatskapelle last year for DG. Finally, we have the analytical rigour of Gielen balanced with Nagano’s mystical streak, a true symphonic texture worthy of a Tennstedt with the attention to detail worthy of a Rattle. Instead of the Grand Gesture, we get a steady stream of little gestures, all of which add up to a clear – and surprisingly warm – portrait that finesses any inconsistencies in the score rather than bulldozing through them. Does it finally replace Solti? Not really, but it deserves to sit on the shelf alongside it.


Postscript – coming up-to-date...

Since this article originally appeared, four further exceptional recordings have entered the field. You can read the Gramophone reviews of these four discs by clicking on the following conductors' names: Riccardo Chailly; Klaus Tennstedt; Valery Gergiev; Michael Tilson Thomas.


Recording Information

Date / Artists / Record company (review date)

1950 NYPO / Stokowski / New York Philharmonic; Music & Arts CD280

1959 LSO / Horenstein / BBC Legends BBCL4001-7 (12/98)

1960 VPO / Mitropoulos / Orfeo C519 992B (4/00)

1962 NYPO / Bernstein (Pt 1 only) / Sony SM2K63159

1966 LSO / Bernstein / Sony 517493-2

1970 Bavarian Rad SO / Kubelík / DG 447 529-2GGA (2/96); 463 738-2GB10

1971 Concertgebouw / Haitink / Philips 442 050-2PB10 (11/94); Pentatone PTC5186 166 (1/07)

1971 Chicago SO / Solti / Decca 475 7521DOR (5/96R);  430 804-2DC10

1975 VPO / Bernstein / DG  459 080-2GX16 (10/91R)

1975 VPO / Bernstein / DG 073 4091GH2;  073 4088GH9 (2/06)

1981 Frankfurt Op Orch / Gielen / Sony SBK48281

1986 Frankfurt Rad SO / Inbal / Denon CO1564/5 (2/88)

1986 LPO / Tennstedt / EMI 361572-2 (3/87; 5/87R); 367743-9

1989 VPO / Maazel / Sony SM2K60307 (9/90)

1991 Cologne Rad SO / Bertini / EMI 340238-2 (6/06)

1991 Atlanta SO / Shaw / Telarc CD80267 (1/92)

1991 Sofia PO / Tabakov / Capriccio 49 043 (3/97)

1994 BPO / Abbado / DG 445 843-2GH2 (6/95); 447 023-2GX12 (12/95)

1994 Gothenburg SO / N Järvi / BIS BIS-CD700

1994 Netherlands Rad PO / de Waart / RCA 74321 27601-2 (1/96)

1996 Bavarian Rad SO / C Davis / RCA 82876 62864-2 (6/97R)

1998 SWR SO / Gielen / Hänssler Classic CD93 015 (1/03); CD93 130

2000 Concertgebouw / Chailly / Decca 467 314-2DH (4/01)

2004 CBSO / Rattle / EMI 557945-2 (4/05)

2005 DSO Berlin / Nagano / Harmonia Mundi HMC90 1858/9; HMC80 1858/9 (3/05)

2005 Warsaw Nat PO / Wit / Naxos 8 550533/4 (9/06)

2007 Staatskapelle Berlin / Boulez / DG 477 6597GH2 (A/07)

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