April 21, 2011


Mahler: Symphony No. 8. Júlia Várady, Jane Eaglen and Susan Bullock, sopranos; Trudeliese Schmidt and Jadwiga Rappé, altos; Kenneth Riegel, tenor; Eike Wilm Schulte, baritone; Hans Sotin, bass; Eton College Boys’ Choir, London Symphony Chorus, and London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir conducted by Klaus Tennstedt. LPO. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 8. Ricarda Merbeth, Elza van den Heever and Elisabeta Marin, sopranos; Stella Grigorian and Jane Henschel, altos; Johan Botha, tenor; Boaz Daniel, baritone; Kwangchul Youn, bass; Wiener Singakademie, Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Wiener Sängerknaben and ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna conducted by Bertrand de Billy. Oehms. $16.99.

     One of the great joys of this centennial of Mahler’s death is the proliferation of fine, and very different, recordings of his symphonies – especially the “Symphony of a Thousand,” which in some ways is the thorniest of them all. This massive symphony-cum-cantata does not really require a thousand performers (although it had them at its première; hence its title), but it is a vocal work throughout, and its need for three choruses and eight skilled soloists – singing some very, very difficult music to some very abstruse words – has long made it difficult to perform and, for some listeners, harder to accept than Mahler’s other symphonies. Newly released live recordings led by Klaus Tennstedt (from 1991) and Bertrand de Billy (from 2010) show just how different this symphony can sound under different conductors and different circumstances.

     Tennstedt’s performance is one of grandeur and majesty – and runs so long (more than 87 minutes) that it does not fit on a single CD. De Billy’s is more quickly paced (78 minutes), but a number of its sections are actually slower than those in Tennstedt’s version – the Poco adagio opening of Part II, for example. So it is not speed alone, or even speed primarily, that distinguishes these two readings, each of which has its own set of excellences.

     What sets Tennstedt and de Billy apart is nothing less than their overall concept of the work, as is made apparent in Part I, in which Mahler uses the words of the 9th-century hymn, Veni, creator spiritus. What exactly did Mahler want that phrase – “Come, creator spirit” – to mean? To Tennstedt, the words are a heartfelt plea, a request made in terms of adoration, for the intercession of a spirit that is both divine and, oddly, beyond the divine. Tennstedt’s singers ask, with great beauty as well as fervor, that the creator spirit imbue them with its power. De Billy’s, on the other hand, issue a command: there is no implied “please” before “come.” For de Billy, Part I is an insistent demand, and in fact, half the timing difference between these performances is contained in Part I, which makes up less than one-third of the symphony. De Billy’s version is more propulsive and more operatic than Tennstedt’s, which is more devotional and offers a stronger contrast between faster and slower sections.

     The interpretative differences of Part I permeate Part II, Mahler’s setting of the final scene of Goethe’s Faust, as well. The cosmology of Faust is scarcely Christian in any traditional sense, glorifying “the eternal feminine” and proclaiming the Virgin Mary as, among other things, a goddess – a forbidden designation in organized Christianity (although not in some forms of Gnosticism, to which Goethe’s Faust is closer in sensibility). Tennstedt focuses on the architectural elements of Part II, very clearly delineating the themes that are repeated and expanded from Part I, building the symphony into a cathedral-like architecture with some similarities (structurally although not thematically) to the late symphonies of Bruckner. Kenneth Riegel as the symbolic Doctor Marianus, who proclaims the sound of transfiguration and worship of the Mater Gloriosa near the symphony’s end, is especially fine, and Susan Bullock’s ethereal Mater Gloriosa – a short solo that is here the true capstone of the symphony – is simply gorgeous. Tennstedt constructs Part II with great care, reassembling the themes of Part I so carefully that the essential unity of the symphony is made abundantly clear and the final Chorus mysticus is not only thrilling but also transcendent.

     De Billy paces Part II more evenly throughout, and his very fine soloists blend beautifully with the orchestra and choruses without standing out as distinctly as Tennstedt’s do. Less concerned with thematic relationships between Part II and Part I, and more involved in making the extended Part II an integral work in itself, de Billy offers an interpretation in which this second part is fully convincing as the final scene, almost, of an opera, but has less connection with the old hymn – and less religious significance – than in Tennstedt’s performance. Under de Billy, the final Chorus mysticus does not start as quietly as it does under Tennstedt and does not resound quite as intensely at the end, but it seamlessly fits the notion of a finale within an extended scene – while Tennstedt’s conclusion is more of a triumphal hymn.

     Mahler’s Eighth can and does resound brilliantly in both of these interpretations, and in many others – it is a vast, complex, beautiful and enigmatic work, as difficult to pin down in many ways as is Goethe’s Faust itself. Certain details of these two performances are less than ideal: the sound accorded Tennstedt is a touch hollow, and that given to de Billy (whose recording was made for radio broadcast and not originally intended as a CD release) occasionally lacks fullness; also, while the booklet with the Tennstedt release provides texts and translations, de Billy’s offers only the texts in their original languages. But both these readings are excellent in their own ways, and both confirm the reality that there is no such things as a definitive “Symphony of a Thousand.” Thank goodness. Or thank Mahler.

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