Mahler Symphony No 8

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Mahler Symphony No 8

  • Symphony No. 8, 'Symphony of a Thousand'

Within my experience of Mahler performances, the Eighth Symphony is the most difficult of the ten for a conductor to 'bring off' successfully. Like the Second, it is very much a public ceremonial piece, but for every dozen effective performances of No. 2, one would be lucky to encounter one or two of No. 8. The number of soloists is one handicap, for example—they must all be good. And the choir is put under almost as much strain in Part 1 as in the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Again, there is the interpretative problem of balancing and reconciling Parts 1 and 2. Solti's Decca recording, made with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Vienna choirs in Vienna in 1971, is one of the most convincing performances of the symphony imaginable. It was a superb recording on LP, and its transfer to CD is a triumph, revealing even more detail and projecting even more powerfully the grandeur and majesty of Solti's conception.
Ozawa's interpretation on Philips has been harshly criticized, not entirely fairly, in my view. It is different from Solti's, although their timings are almost identical, but it is by means episodic, as has been suggested, and achieves a satisfactory apotheosis. He remembers that the symphony had deeply personal significance for Mahler and sees it from this angle rather than as an epic. Unfortunately his performance has not been nearly so well recorded; balance and dynamic levels being inferior. Nor can the Tanglewood Festival Chorus be remotely compared with the Vienna voices at Solti's command. Solti, too, has the better team of soloists, though I prefer Kenneth Riegel as Doctor Marianus to Rene Kollo. Talvela (Solti) is too near the microphone but is superior to Gwynne Howell for Ozawa in sheer power. Both Lucia Popp (Solti) and Judith Blegen (Ozawa) sing with the purity of intonation needed for Gretchen, but the crucial intervention of the Mater Gloriosa with ''Komm! Hebe dich'' is properly exalted on the Solti disc from Arleen Auger whereas Ozawa's Deborah Sasson is a disappointment.
Both orchestras play superbly; it would be invidous to adjudicate between them, in part 2 especially. But at a passage such as the Adagissimo at fig. No. 106 in Part 2, while Ozawa's tempo is perhaps truer, Solti Draws such intensity of phrasing from the Chicago strings that he carries full conviction. Also the harmonium is clearly recorded here by Decca: its contribution to the tone-colour at this passage is important. Another advantage of the Solti discs, a purely practical one, is that they are more generously indexed—six entry-points in part 1 and 12 in part 2 against one and six respectively on the Philips.'

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