June 01, 2006


Mahler: Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”). Barbara Kubiak, Izabela Kłosińska and Marta Boberska, sopranos; Jadwiga Rappé and Ewa Marciniec, contraltos; Timothy Bentch, tenor; Wojtek Drabowicz, baritone; Piotr Nowacki, bass; Polish Radio Choir in Kraków; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University Choir; Warsaw Boys Choir; Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky (cantata); Lieutenant Kijé (suite). Latvian State Choir; Ewa Podleś, mezzo-soprano; Orchestre National de Lille-Région Nord/Pas-de-Calais conducted by Jean-Claude Casadesus. Naxos. $8.99.

     Any performance of Mahler’s Eighth is an event.  Although it does not really require 1,000 performers – the “Symphony of a Thousand” name was bestowed on it at the time of the first performance, but not by Mahler – it does need several hundred.  The work marked a return by Mahler to choral symphonies after he wrote three (Nos. 5-7) for instruments alone.  This work and Das Lied von der Erde, which Mahler superstitiously decided not to call No. 9 because Beethoven’s production had ended at nine, were to be his last choral symphonies.

     In a musicscape as large as this one, simply starting and ending correctly is a challenge.  Keeping everyone together, getting the cues right, making sure all participants start and stop at the right times – this is no small task.  Antoni Wit handles the huge forces with precision, although not everyone seems fully comfortable with Mahler’s style.  The symphony – really more of a symphony-cantata – is written with a shorter part to a Latin text and a longer one to German words.  The former sets a famous ninth-century Whitsun hymn; the latter is a marvelous setting of the finale of Goethe’s Faust – a complex metaphysical scene that does not appear in the many operas based on Goethe’s work.  Through musical relationships and echoes, Mahler links the two parts brilliantly, suggesting that the “creator spirit” of the symphony’s first part is equivalent to “the eternal feminine” of the second.  Hearing this work is, or should be, a transcendent experience.

     Wit’s rendition falls a bit short, but mostly for nonmusical reasons.  The one soloist who has difficulty with his role is tenor Timothy Bentch, whose voice sounds pinched and strained, especially at the outset.  The other soloists and choruses are top-notch, with the Warsaw Boys Choir especially excellent.  Unfortunately, the miking of soloists and choruses over-favors the individual singers: they come through very clearly indeed, but the vast choral sections sound a bit constricted and do not burst forth with all the volume and intensity they should possess.  This is an admirable recording, but not a great one.

     Also admirable are the live performances of Alexander Nevsky and the Lieutenant Kijé suite led by Jean-Claude Casadesus, recorded in 1994.  The works themselves are popular but relatively minor Prokofiev.  Both are from films: the Lieutenant Kijé suite dates to 1934 (the film came out a year earlier), and Alexander Nevsky was a 1938 collaboration with the great Sergey Eisenstein (Prokofiev was to work with him again on Ivan the Terrible in 1942).  These works are straightforward explications of their themes, as is appropriate for film music.  Alexander Nevsky is about Russia heroically repelling a Teutonic invasion in the 13th century; Lieutenant Kijé is an amusing tale of a soldier accidentally created through a bureaucratic blunder – and the career subsequently developed for him when the Tsar takes an interest in him.  The Nevsky music is mostly warlike bluster and triumph, though the mezzo-soprano solo after the climactic battle is affecting.  Kijé is sly and mildly sarcastic, and parts of the suite have become so popular that even Woody Allen used them in the days when he made interesting films.  These performances are straightforward and nicely balanced, though there is unintentional irony in hearing the Latvian State Choir celebrating Russian triumphs just a few years after Latvia broke from the Soviet yoke that had held it forcefully within the U.S.S.R. for decades.  There is little depth in these works or these performances, but if you like brassiness and Prokofiev’s sardonic wit, they are certainly fine.

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