MAHLER Symphony No 8 (Chailly)
There are several distinguished accounts of this symphony in audio-visual format to which Riccardo Chailly now adds another, a souvenir of a great occasion in a fine but not overlarge venue. While there’s been no great interpretative change of direction since his previously immortalised Leipzig concerts of 2011, the subtler treatment of certain passages can perhaps be construed as a ‘tribute to Claudio’. In August 2016 Abbado’s final, unfinished Mahler cycle was, in effect, completed by this performance (captured over two nights), simultaneously inaugurating a new era as Chailly succeeded his friend and colleague as music director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.
Clarity is achieved at the expense of sheer numbers. This is no ‘symphony of a thousand’ – the ensemble reportedly totalled 358, a fairly typical complement these days. The expert, multi-sourced choral contingent is positioned in six rows across the width of Lucerne’s modern hall with the Tölzer Knabenchor squeezed in along the sides.
In the first movement, where some conductors plainly intend the opening blast to pin listeners to their seats, Chailly avoids too much shock and awe. Not that he is content to smooth away all the disruptive elements of Mahler’s invention. Orchestral detail has a brighter physicality than Abbado might have encouraged and the soloists’ operatic vibrato may well strike you as excessive. Deferring until the very last moment the traditional though unmarked ritardando into the recapitulation of the ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’, Chailly is plainly anxious to keep something in reserve.
The longer second part has all the operatic vividness you might expect from this source with speeds generally a little slower than in Leipzig. The soloists are somewhat variable. Peter Mattei’s Pater Ecstaticus, a little flat on arrival, quickly finds his very best form. Samuel Youn’s Pater Profundus is passionate but the voice occasionally misfires. Tenor Andreas Schager is indubitably ardent as Doctor Marianus; sadly the volume is unvaryingly loud and the effect ultimately wearing, however impressive the decibels. While coping admirably with the high tessitura, Ricarda Merbeth (Magna Peccatrix) crosses the line between vibrancy and wobble. Sara Mingardo (Mulier Samaritana), her contralto a size smaller, is blessedly focused.
There’s nothing controversial or tricksy about the filming (unless you object to a harpist’s sheet music being glimpsed through the strings of the instrument when the Mater Gloriosa floats into view). Members of chorus and orchestra are caught smiling on camera, although there’s a telltale grimace in the final build up when the hushed choral entry is managed with a spellbinding Abbado‑esque hush, only for the soloists to fall short of the same standard. The human and technical frailties of Klaus Tennstedt’s live relay cannot disguise the more startling emotive force of his music-making. But then those who attended the Royal Festival Hall in 1991 and can still remember Julia Varady’s gown should perhaps recuse themselves from critical comment! Chailly takes immense care to get details right. Few conductors have lived so long with this music and none has proved more adept at coordinating its disparate forces.
This Accentus DVD comes elegantly packaged and annotated, the list of orchestral personnel confirming the arrival of a few more Milanese names. I missed the feline elegance of Abbado’s podium presence. Still, at least one of his traditions endures: audience members wait patiently at the end until their new hero is ready to take the applause.