ONLINE - ISSUE 6
MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E-flat ("Symphony of a Thousand")
Jane Eaglen (Magna Peccatrix), Anne Schwanewilms (Una Poenitentium), Ruth Ziesak (Mater Gloriosa), sopranos; Sara Fulgoni (Mulier Samaritana), Anna Larsson (Maria Aegyptiaca), contraltos; Ben Heppner (Doctor Marianus), tenor; Peter Mattei (Pater Ecstaticus), baritone; Jan-Hendrik Rootering (Pater Profundus), bass; Prague Philharmonic Choir and Netherlands Radio Choir; Childrens Choruses of St. Bavo Cathedral Choir and Sacramentskoor, Breda; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
Decca 289 467 314-2 (2 CDs). TT: 82:14.
Some thirty years ago, Decca Records then doing business in the U.S. as London Records recorded Mahlers Symphony of a Thousand with Sir Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony. It stood as a noteworthy achievement, not only musically (for the dynamic performance), but sonically as well. Deccas recording aesthetic never pretended to audiophile "concert-hall realism"; the recording rather attempted, by means of careful, elaborate microphoning and mixing, to re-create the scores vivid concert-hall impact for home listening. Scattered dissents notwithstanding, the album garnered numerous critical encomia, attaining immediate bestseller status, and remaining constantly in the catalogue since.
The present release Deccas newest installment in Riccardo Chaillys slowly unfolding Mahler cycle illustrates, sadly, that you cant force lightning to strike twice. Digital technology and all, Deccas latter-day engineers cant match, let alone improve on, the results achieved a generation ago.
The opening organ pedal point has an imposing, deep impact nowadays, anyone can do low bass. But the immediate choral entry is a shocker: loud, fuzzy and unfocused, its more noise than music, and a harbinger of things to come. The passage after the big "Accende" leaves the same unfortunate impression. The tutti outbursts are powerful, but texturally unclear (which may not be entirely the engineers fault, but well get to that). In the more lightly scored passages at the start of Part II, the solo woodwind images are round and vivid, but the violins sound scrawny and shallow. Only the closing pages of the work, when the heavy brass dominate the textures, sound really brilliant and full, and the final cadences have a satisfying weight. But weve missed too much along the way.
Of course, there is no shame in getting Mahlers Eighth sonically "wrong": these massive performing forces are a bear to record, and most previous issues have fallen short here. A distinctive, insightful performance would still represent a significant addition to the discography. Again, compare Solti: his episodic, overzealous interpretation notwithstanding, he remained a veteran conductor at the peak of his powers, working with a topflight, responsive orchestra capable of realizing his ideas alertly and expertly.
Riccardo Chailly, alas, is no Solti. Ive never seen Chailly in concert, but his recorded work suggests that his stick signals arent the sort to draw really clean, tight playing. The Royal Concertgebouw, of course, is an outstanding ensemble (at this point, probably superior to Chicago), and they can keep more or less together with minimal podium direction, but they need more if the biggest passages are to emerge with shape and purpose. In fairness, Chaillys musical instincts are reasonable, even if he doesnt have the technical means to realize them. In Part II, he carries off some nice coloristic and blending effects, and brings a certain amount of uplift to the "Blicket auf" motif. He cant do much to highlight major arrival points say, cue 64 in Part I except push into them more forcefully, but at least hes doing something.
The vocal soloists are the usual mixed bag, and here I wont invoke Solti, whose lineup is better, but hardly perfect. (If the solo singing is your primary interest, Im afraid youll be holding on to the rather closely recorded Kubelik in DG 29042, 10 CDs for a long time: no other cast even comes close.) The big disappointment, especially given the fuss in operatic circles, is Jane Eaglen. Where the tessitura is undemanding say, the "gratiorum" before cue 72 in Part I her singing is round and the phrasing shapely. But much of the music takes her above the top A, where the voice becomes thin and wiry. Sometimes, as in her opening phrases, this can pass for a "float"; elsewhere it just sounds careful, and occasionally under pitch. The "Gloria Patri" at cue 91, where the two sopranos trade off top Cs, is embarrassing: Anne Schwanewilms delivers them with lustrous, vibrant presence; Eaglen, vocally and texturally, is barely there.
Ben Heppner reverses the pattern of his performance for Colin Davis (RCA 09026-68348-2, 2 CDs, deleted). Here, after a stiff beginning, he is outstanding in Part I, banging out brilliant, secure top B-flats to shame the unison sopranos. But in too much of Part II hes monochromatic, and a slow, sour tremor intrudes.
Both altos are timbrally right, but Sara Fulgonis lower range is constricted. (Is she singing the "Geeinte Zweinatur" solo in Part II? The beautiful, caressing tone and legato dont match the rest of her work here. Perhaps the line was reassigned to the second alto, Anna Larsson.) Its hard even to hear the distanced Mater Gloriosa, much less to "place" her aurally, but Ruth Ziesaks voice seems thicker and less fresh than on the Blomstedt Resurrection (Decca 443 350-2, 2 CDs). Peter Matteis diffuse, unsteady baritone hardly sounds "ecstaticus," and he keeps trying to push the solo ahead; conversely, Jan-Hendrink Rootering is tonally firm, but his phrasing ("Infirma, infirma" in Part I) exceptionally wooden. The adult choruses are all right, although the altos and the tenors variously sound too "open" for my taste; the kids cut through satisfactorily.
Such a disappointing performance of a "big" piece suggests that some of Chaillys success with the Concertgebouw in Mahler and Bruckner owes more to the orchestras tradition and style than to any positive contribution of his own. As for the Eighth, status quo ante.
Stephen Francis Vasta