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Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.8 (Part 1)

Continued here: "GUSTAV MAHLER — SYMPHONY NO.8 (PART 2)"

The garishly divine Eighth Symphony is the oddest beast of Mahler’s, by far. Not because it is difficult to come to terms with (although it can be that, too—even if the Third and Seventh raise more question marks) or difficult to enjoy. In fact, given the right amount of patience necessary for any of his symphonies, the Eighth might be more easily enjoyed than most his other symphonies. Grandeur and bombast and a very different musical language—less dense, not Angst-driven, one might even say: confident and optimistic (for once!)—make for that. It sticks out from the rest like a sour thumb, and card carrying Mahler-fanatics tends to look down a little on this Schmachtfetzen (weepy rag).

Hamming up the mentioned grandeur and the work will irredeemably descend into pomposity. The admittedly effective nickname, “Symphony of a Thousand”—coined by the impresario Emil Gutmann—has not always been helpful to that effect.

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8, Solti / CSO

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8, Rattle / CoBSO

UK | DE | FR
In this work it is necessary to capture the second movement on the concluding part of Goethe’s Faust II just right—and all too often conductors get it just wrong. There seems an incorrigible trend—especially among Anglo-type conductors (I include Chicago-Solti here)—to meet the symphony in both movements with stride, élan, purpose, and goal. Nothing could be more harmful to a work that must shimmer, hover, only evoke, never proclaim. Faust II is, frankly, a drug-hazed, weird read—and although once part of the basic canon of German literature—Mahler knew sections by heart, has very much gone out of fashion. I wonder how many conductors slug through it, before tackling the Mahler Eighth.

Solti’s very, very highly regarded recording (with the CSO but recorded in Vienna) only raises my ire. It must be the single most overrated Mahler recording on the market and it takes me a lot less time to forget that performance than it takes me listening to it. (It is, admittedly, recorded gloriously!) Similar in all flaws—but with less ideal sound, a slightly lesser orchestral performance, lesser vocal and choral contributions—is Simon Rattle’s recent recording that The Gramophone praised to the skies. I’ve written about it before and doubt that I will ever turn to it again.

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8, N.Järvi / Gothenburg OO

UK | DE | FR
When I reviewed Neeme Järvi's live account alongside Rattle's, it may have gotten a recommendation that was a bit too enthusiastic. Granted, anything sounds good next to the blasé Rattle, but there are finer, tauter Eighths, if that is one’s preferred style. Still, at a perversely fast 70 minutes, Järvi shows that tempo is not the only consideration—and for all the derision that rains on the Gothenburg performance—I think it’s a fine effort (the soloists don’t help, though) and a near-radical, deeply felt alternative, without being nearly as glib as other ‘zipped’ versions are.

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8, Abbado / BPh

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8, Sinopoli / Philharmonia

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8, Nagano / DSO Berlin
Harmonia Mundi

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Somehow, all my favorite versions are [at the time of writing this] out of print in North America. Although this list aims at including only those recordings that are in print, the re-issue fluctuations are such that it always merits pointing out something currently unavailable, in hope it might re-appear soon. Aside, the three choices I refer to are indeed so good as to merit looking in used-CD stores and on the Internet for. They are: Claudio Abbado’s Vienna recording (DG—of chamber-music like virtues; darn good finale), Giuseppe Sinopoli’s terrifically bold version (DG; available as an inexpensive import and as part of his very complete Mahler box), the latest deletion victim Kent Nagano (HMU—the best of the recent recordings and would-be favorite on SACD), and my far-and-away favorite: Seiji Ozawa’s Philips recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Ozawa’s tenure with Boston was not a very happy one toward the end of their twenty-nine (!) year stretch… and that muddles our memory of him as a conductor. Because at his best, he had the ability of being truly spell-binding and the good moments in the BSO/Ozawa affair occasionally produced magic. This recording from 1980 is such an occasion. Its mix of intensity and atmosphere is not matched even by the best of contenders. For all those who don’t understand how the Solti recording could ever be so hyped by the (English) press, this is the ideal antidote.

available at AmazonG.Mahler, Symphony No.8,
S.Ozawa / Boston SO
Philips (& Arkiv CD)

Ozawa gives the Eighth all the time it needs to develop. Not excessively so, either—80 minutes is enough for him and not all excessive to spend on this work. Ozawa does not let it sag but rolls out the wafty, nebulous, foggy, misty parts so tenderly, in a way so other-worldly (and with no audible gear changes whenever he nudges the work forward again), that in a very eerie, beautiful way, time seems to stand still. After a mighty, powerful, broad, but not too slow Veni, Creator Spiritus (23:07), a marvel itself, he lunges into Faust II. Although ‘lunge’ is probably not the proper word: he carves it out of the score and, supported by a cast of singers that, seemingly infected by the momentous occasion, outdo themselves, delivers the most satisfying reading of this second movement: pure splendor. Better yet, he crowns it with an indescribably perfect Chorus Mysticus. For me, a performance of the 8th stands and falls with “Alles Vergängliche,” and Ozawa’s 6:02 are like a one-way ticket to heaven. Whatever negative things have been said about Ozawa’s Boston Mahler (his Saito Kinen 2nd is actually excellent; the 9th with that band very good, too), this performance alone should have redeemed him.

The recording has been re-released on one (!) budget CD for the “Philips Super Best 100” [sic] collection and worth importing at some $15 with S&H. For such purposes my Japanese on-line retailer of choice is, although that version is also out of print again [2012]. ArkivMusic has included the original (2-CD) recording into its line of licensed, re-printed “ArkivCDs”. That is a great service because without the import hassle, the asking price of $25 still leaves this one of the best Mahler bargains. For those who can wait: now that the ‘Philips’ brand can no longer be used by Universal Music, it might get re-issued as a Decca Original eventually. In any case, this ‘relative availability’ is enough for me to include it among my top choices.

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8, Bernstein / WPh

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8, Bernstein / LSO

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The one great recording you can pick up around the corner, rather than half-around the globe, is Bernstein’s DG recording from Salzburg with the Vienna Philharmonic. And even that only comes in a box set now, but in the partitioned budget set that DG recently issued it is no more expensive than the full price two-disc release of the Eighth alone. And since the set conveniently comes with his Concertgebouw Ninth (good), Vienna Adagio of the Tenth, and his Vienna Lied von der Erde (my top choice), that is hardly a drawback. He draws on all the emotional content of the Eighth, but he does so lovingly. He reigns over huge forces that, at peaks, don’t sound terribly detailed. But that matters little to none—clinical detail is explicitly not what the second movement asks for (although Abbado makes it work splendidly, somehow) and when the sounds waft together, it’s near heavenly with Bernstein. His earlier account with the LSO on Sony has a commendable, if occasionally hectic, first movement marred by distortions even in the new remastered edition.

Continued here: Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.8 (Part 2)

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