Album review: Tremendous Mahler 8 from Philadelphia

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Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (1906) is one of those pieces that extend beyond all attempts of categorization and description. It is a one-of-a-kind symphony that simply has to be experienced. 

All this may sound terribly clichéd, but in case of a symphony written in two parts, one a 25-minute Latin hymn, another an hour-long setting of the final scene of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust II (1831), scored for eight soloists, three choruses and a vast orchestra, there are not many equals in the repertoire. 

In Mahler’s output, the Eighth is pretty much sui generis. Though he had used vocal and choral elements within the symphonic concept already in the Second (1888-1894), Third (1895-96) and Fourth Symphonies (1899-1901/1902-10), the Eighth was to become the first choral symphony proper, with omnipresent sung parts.         

Fusing together various influences from baroque via Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1822-24) all the way to Wagner, the Eighth Symphony is rooted in the idea of the harmony of spheres, or music as a manifestation of the universe. 

From first sketches on, Mahler intended to open the symphony with a Latin hymn, landing soon on a setting of the pentecostal Veni creator spiritus. Originally, Mahler had envisioned a four-movement symphony, but in the end he came up with an unprecedented scheme of a symphony in two parts, with the pentecostal hymn now paired with an extended setting of the final scene of Goethe’s Faust II. 

As a result, the Eighth Symphony is a dazzling summa, combining symphony, cantata and oratorio into an eighty-minute musical entity. The first draft of the symphony was written at extraordinary speed between the middle of June and the end of August 1906. Mahler himself felt as if the whole symphony was dictated to him.    

There are two famous quotations from Mahler, that encapsulate the very nature of the Eighth Symphony in splendid manner. 

In a 1906 letter to Willem Mengelberg, Mahler wrote that ”Imagine that the universe begins to sound and ring. There are no longer human voices, but planets and suns that circulate.” The next year, while in Helsinki en route to St Petersburg, Mahler told Sibelius, that ”the symphony must be like the world. It must be all-encompassing.”  

According to Alfred Roller, the set designer for Mahler’s acclaimed 1903 production of Tristan and Isolde, the composer referred to the symphony as his mass, or a musical credo, during the rehearsals for the first performance. 

The symphony was premiered in Munich in September 1910, with Mahler himself conducting two performances. The Eighth Symphony was an immediate, towering success. For Mahler himself, the symphony was his magnum opus, unsurpassed by even his late works.   

The first American performance of the symphony was conducted by Leopold Stokowski in Philadelphia in March 1916, less than six years after the world premiere. A century later, almost to the day, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Music Director of The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted the symphony in series of performances recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, for the new CD album.

Featuring Westminster Symphonic Choir, The Choral Arts Society of Washington and The American Boychoir, alongside eight wonderful soloists, Angela Meade, Erin Wall, Lisette Oropesa, Elizabeth Bishop, Mihoko Fujimura, Anthony Dean Griffey, Marcus Werba and John Relyea, the performance is a rousing one, clad in exquisite detail. 

Upon the appearance of the very first note, a deep E flat pedal, uttered by bass clarinet, bassoons, double bassoon, celli, double basses and organ, one gets swept away by the glorious Philadelphia sound. On record, I can’t recall hearing more convincing opening for this symphony. The feeling is only enhanced by the ravishing entry of the double choir from the second bar on. 

The first part, conceived as a giant motet, poses particular challenges of balance and pacing. With extreme contrasts in dynamics and texture in the score, the conductor must have a firm sense of the overall form in order to maintain continuum. 

With Nézet-Séguin, Veni crator spritus unfolds magnificently, well proportioned and admirably nuanced. The soli and the choruses are nicely balanced throughout Imple suprema gratia. Although the bassoon lines are occasionally overrun by the celli, the orchestra sounds absolutely brilliant. 

In similar vein, Infirma nostri corporis is brought to life with riveting vocal and instrumental colour. The entries of the second and the first choir from figure 19 on are clad in sonic magic, and the violin solo, starting at figure 20, is simply luminous. 

As the orchestral interlude begins at figure 23 (track 4 on the CD), there is a thrilling change of mood and texture with those gorgeous muted horns. 

The sheer energy and vitality of Accende lumen sensibus, always carefully balanced, results in one of the many highlights of this recording. Exalted and ecstatic, the music resonates with dazzling vocal and instrumental momentum, paving the way for the closing Gloria sit Patri Domino. 

Augmented by offstage band of four trumpets and three trombones, the first part comes to its ravishing close with a stunning tutti. Here, the music sounds wonderfully layered, with apt clarity. 

In the course of the vast symphonic arc of the Second Part, thematic material from Veni creator spiritus reappears in various guises, thus bridging the two parts together in most imaginative ways.

Opening with slow orchestral introduction, stupendously played by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Nézet-Séguin, the otherworldly realm of Part Two starts to unfold. The first vocal lines emerge, as the two choirs enter, pianissimo, echoing each other, shrouded in mystery, while solo flute soars high above. 

Gradually, solo voices enter, clad in Wagnerian hue. Pater estaticus and Pater profundis are compellingly sung by baritone Markus Werba and bass John Relyea.  

Choral textures from Veni creator spiritus reappear, now applied to Goethe’s text. Woven together with Elizabeth Bishop’s spirited alto, the passage carries a fleeting echo of the Third Symphony. A tenor voice, Doctor Marianus, joins. Sung by Anthony Dean Griffey, the solo line hovers over orchestral and choral canvas in splendid radiance. 

Another stupendous orchestral interlude follows, with strings, harps and horns glimmering in static beauty, setting the stage for wondrous choral passage. Female voices join, first Una poenitentium, followed by Magna Peccatrix, Mulier Samaritania and Maria Aegyptiaca. 

Cast for  two soprano voices, sung by Erin Wall and Angela Meade, and two alto voices, sung by Elizabeth Bishop and Mihoko Fujimura, Mahler’s vocal parts are sublime yet intense, wonderfully caught on on record here. Admirably accompanied by the orchestra and Nézet-Séguin, the voices and instruments are in perfect balance. 

A glimpse of Heaven is provided by soprano Lisette Oropesa’s achingly beautiful take on Mater gloriosa. An oasis of tranquillity, providing brief rest before the finale.   

Closing with two choral frescoes, the symphony is brought to its transcendent ending with Blicket auf and, finally, Chorus mysticus. Both skillfully built, with astonishing intensity and utmost beauty. Thus the Eighth Symphony comes to its tremendous close, with the soli, choirs and orchestra sounding as one giant entity. Following the scheme of the finale of the Second Symphony, the closing pages are written for orchestra alone; a stupendous coda, with dream-like playing by the Philadelphia Orchestra.  

In addition to the performers, the Eighth Symphony is quite a challenge to the recording team too. Most recordings of the symphony originate either from live performances or ’studio’ takes from rehearsals, in conjunction with concert performances. 

Especially with the older studio recordings, there is a recurring tendency to overbalance the soloists, leading to somewhat lopsided acoustic experience. In contrast, in many of the live recordings, the solo lines, be they vocal or instrumental, tend to get lost in the crowd. 

On this recording, the DG team is at the top of their game. The voices, solo or choral, are well balanced with the orchestra throughout. As for the instrumental parts, there is a marvellous clarity, admirably emphasizing the Philadelphia sound. Here, my only real complaint concerns the bassoon lines, which don’t shine out the way the other instruments do. Occasionally, I would have wanted more focused tuba sound too. 

Still, this is probably my favourite recording in terms of recording and engineering the orchestral parts. As for the three choirs, there is a wonderful sense of space, with the contrapuntal textures captured in all their radiance.

The solo voices are naturally balanced, with the soprano and alto voices soaring in the midst of the complex orchestral and choral web of sound. In tutti sections, the male soloists seem less focused, partly due to their registers. Yet, they come out way better than on most recordings, without sounding artificially enhanced. 

 

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor

 

Westminster Symphonic Choir

Joe Miller, chorus master

 

The Choral Arts Society of Washington

Scott Tucker, chorus master

 

The American Boychoir

Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, chorus master

 

Erin Wall, soprano

Angela Meade, soprano

Lisette Oropesa, soprano

Elizabeth Bishop, mezzo-soprano

Mihoko Fujimura, mezzo-soprano

Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor

Markus Werba, baritone

John Relyea, bass

 

Recorded at Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 10-13 March 2016

Deutsche Grammophon 0289 483 7871 5 (2020), 1 CD

 

© Jari Kallio

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