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Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.8 (Part 2)

This continues "Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.8 (Part 1)"

  G.Mahler, Sy.8, Wit / Warsaw PONaxos G.Mahler, Sy.8, Wit / Warsaw PO

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For a while, the Mahler Eight with Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic on Naxos was the only recording (easily) available in the U.S. that comes close to Ozawa’s splendor. Classics Today sings its praises loudly (then again, Classics Today sings “The 5 Browns“ praises loudly, too) and indeed, it is a grand, a weighty, a magnificent reading. The timings are incidentally similar to Ozawa’s: 6:25 for “Alles Vergängliche,” 23:56 for “Veni, Creator Spiritus”—although minutes and seconds rarely tell the whole story about any Mahler symphony. Wit knows how to handle large orchestral forces: His 2000 recording of Messiaen’s Symphonie Turangalila (with the Polish Radio SO) was the disc that turned me on to Naxos as a high quality in label in the first place; a Turangalila to hold its pride of place against Chung (DG) and Nagano (Warner). The Mahler meanwhile is well paced (at just under 81 minutes the Naxos engineers were sadly unable to fit it onto one disc, eating up the Naxos price advantage), this is the kind of “Continental” interpretation I need to hear in the Eighth.

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

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Kent Nagano’s broad and generous Eighth on Harmonia Mundi (ionarts review here) came out to scathing reviews in the English press just as Rattle’s hit the stores, and was soon out of print. (It has been re-issued since, thankfully, but is no longer available in the SACD format.) Along with Wit it is the foremost rival to Bernstein’s DG recording among the ones that are easily (or officially) available in the U.S. But even in a more competitive market Wit and his very fine soloists (never mind that I’ve not heard of any of them except Barbara Kubiak: they just about equal any of their more famed competitors on other discs) and enthusiastic choirs should be among the top six choices. The sound is very good if not too detailed, the organ present but not dominating, the climaxes dramatic. If it lacks anything, it is a touch of subtlety. Not something you’ll likely find in the Bernstein, either, by the way.

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8, Kubelik / BRSO

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Kubelik has a different view of the Eighth—less grandiose, a little leaner. His singers are perhaps the best on record and on Audite (SACD) they are captured at their best. Martina Arroyo, Erna Spoorenberg, Edith Mathis, Julia Hamari, Norma Procter, Donald Grobe, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Franz Crass—aided by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Chorus make this disc very desirable for those who make the singing a priority and don’t need to wring every last emotional drop from the score. The only snag with the one-off live performance are a few off notes in the brass and woodwind (fairly noticeable on two occasions) that can, upon repeated listening, make themselves known by being anticipated (which gives wrong notes on recordings such a different nature than in performance).

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

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Mitropoulos brought the Eighth Symphony to the Salzburg Festival and this 1960 reading still excites listeners, just like an old Horenstein BBC recording does. I had read rather bad things about the sound on either, and the Mitropoulos Orfeo recording to be worse than the Horenstein. If you’ve managed to listen to the first minutes of Mitropoulos’ Sixth, however, the Eighth will seem like Hi-Fi. Well, not exactly, but at least better than his Third or Fifth. The female soloists are a bit too much forward-placed in the Chorus Mysticus, to some de-mystifying effect—and that’s just one of many smaller quibbles… but a terrific grip on the second movement and a sense of occasion amount to something quite wonderful, even if that wonderful thing (the Salzburg audience sounds very enthusiastic in their applause; the reviews at the time were radiant) was surely greater then, than it is now. Still, given the relative and surprising dearth of good, in-print Eighths, this recording is much more than a historic curiosita, it’s a contender. And while rarely first choice, Mitropoulos is (nearly) always worth hearing in Mahler.

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8, Gielen / SWRSO

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Not a contender is Shaw in what must be his worst recording. His soulless Atlanta reading is an empty choral showcase that makes Solti sound like an idiomatic dream-boat. Gielen on Sony is a hasty, skinny dog—and among hasty, skinny dogs, Järvi is better. Gielen’s second take (Hänssler), however, is a little more like Abbado’s and very well worth listening to. It suffers from its own virtues (clarity, precision at the expense of atmosphere) like Boulez does (discussed below), but not to the point where it zaps the performance of all the majestic air. One problem is that a few conductors go too far out in “Blicket Auf”, only to then retreat again and restart from a nebulous nothing in “Alles vergängliche”… and that inevitably breaks the continuity of build-up over those last two movements.

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8, Boulez / Staatskapelle Berlin

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Pierre Boulez (DG) benefits from very good sound; everything is captured in detail, great presence, immediacy. Individual moments are impressively caught, his singers never give reason for complaints… and yet the interpretation, though expansive (!) at 85 minutes, fails to build up any sense of grandeur in both movements. The finale is positively sterile due to its lack of mist, distance, or hesitation. Abbado’s live recording (81 min.) hasn’t nearly the same clarity in sound, nor do Abbado’s famous singers outsing the competition. And yet—or because of it?—there is sense of an event, of magic. None of that in Boulez, which makes his final recording of the Deutsche Grammophon cycle (he’s not likely to givs us a complete 10th or else DG would hardly have let Danny Harding record that work as his debut disc on their label) an unfortunate dud… the only one among his fabulous Mahler record.

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8, Gergiev / LSO
LSO Live

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Unlikely relief comes from Valery Gergiev (LSO Live, SACD). Having found his Mahler thus far aimless, pointless, and of little interest, my hopes for his Eighth were low. It’s easy to exceed low expectations, of course; there are politicians who have made careers of doing nothing else. But Gergiev’s live recording from July 2008 enjoys the natural reverberation of St Paul’s Cathedral instead of the small, dry acoustic of the Barbican Hall. His crony-ist all-Russian selection of singers acquits itself well enough, the London Symphony Orchestra performs with routine, jazzed up by a touch of dedication. Gergiev is fairly quick (77 min.), especially considering that he has to deal with more natural reverb than other conductors, but it is evidently a mistake to assume a direct correlation of length, breadth, and atmospheric momentousness.

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8,Tilson Thomas / SFS
SFS Media

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St Paul’s acoustic, just shy of making the Eighth a mess, is tremendously helpful in creating the necessary atmosphere, and it especially pays off in the final minutes where Gergiev manages to be better than most, creating steam out of vapor, a fearsomely fierce storm around a lavishly dominating organ: Imposing and uplifting and far and away the best Gergiev-Mahler contribution yet. So much that he even beats the recent SACD-competition of Michael Tilson Thomas whose gear-change heavy Eighth I see in line with Boulez and Gielen II, ahead of the former, behind the latter, in terms of ambiance Mysticus-feel. As with Gielen, you can scarcely tell it’s a live recording, so much does it sound like the only recent studio recording, Boulez’.

The font used in the title is "Grafiko Regular"

Mahler 8 Choices

1. Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Philips / ArkivCD

2. Leonard Bernstein, Wiener Philharmoniker, DG

3. Guiseppe Sinopoli, Philharmonia, DG

4. Kent Nagano, DSO Berlin, Harmonia Mundi

4. Antoni Wit, Warsaw National Philharmonic, Naxos

5. Valery Gergiev, London Symphony Orchestra, LSO Live

6. Dimitri Mitropoulos, Wiener Philharmoniker, Orfeo

7. Michael Gielen, South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hänssler

Mahler 8 SACD Choice

1. Nagano Valery Gergiev, London Symphony Orchestra, LSO Live

Continued here: Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.9 (Part 1)

Overview of the whole Mahler Survey on ionarts at this link.