June 22, 2006


Mahler: Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”). Ileana Cotrubas, Heather Harper and Hanneke Van Bork, sopranos; Birgit Finnilä and Marianne Dieleman, contraltos; William Cochran, tenor; Hermann Prey, baritone; Hans Sotin, bass; Toonkunstkoor, Amsterdam; De Stem des Volks, Amsterdam; Collegium Musicum Amstelodamense; Children’s Choirs of the Churches of St. Willibrord and St. Pius X, Amsterdam; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink.  PentaTone Classics. $19.99 (SACD).

     Bernard Haitink is one of the greatest of all Mahler conductors, and this 1971 performance of the Eighth Symphony is one of the greatest ever recorded.  Its release by PentaTone in the original four-channel version that Philips created, but could not bring to market at a time when stereo LPs were the dominant recordings, is a major event.  No Mahler lover should be without this spectacular SACD – which sounds superb on any CD player, and even better on equipment designed to take advantage of all four channels.

     Haitink’s understanding of this huge work is immense and profound.  His tempi are on the brisk side, but never injudiciously so.  His solo singers have opera-quality voices, and many have in fact been heard in operas.  All the choruses are superb, speaking their words with clarity and bringing emotion to texts that must be far from familiar to most chorus members, especially the children; general chorus master Frans Moonen does an outstanding job.  The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, one of the two or three best in the world at the time this recording was made, plays with perfect tone, balance and intensity throughout – Mahler, a great conductor in his time, would have been overjoyed with such clear inner voices, such elegant brass, such precise woodwinds, such sumptuous strings.

     Haitink truly interprets this work; there is no sense, as there is in some other recordings, of simply trying to get through it, to keep the huge mass of performers together.  The first part, Veni, creator spiritus, hums with intensity, the tempo changes handled with aplomb and the balance between choral and orchestral forces nearly perfect.  The second part, the final scene from Part II of Goethe’s Faust, is revelatory.  Thanks to the intelligent decision to release this performance as a single SACD (some other recordings come as two disks), the moody instrumental introduction to the second part closely follows the end of the first, marking a distinctive change in ambiance – and also connecting the two parts carefully.  Haitink excels at bringing forth Mahler’s linkages: as themes in the second part reflect those in the first, we hear them with great clarity, even when solo violinist Jo Juda is playing against huge massed forces.  (Juda and organist Kees de Wijs both make top-notch contributions.)  And Haitink knows just where and how to draw attention to words that Mahler deemed crucial.  For example, Doctor Marianus’ bleibe gnädig (“grant your mercy”) is unsurprisingly repeated three times, but so is the joyful cry of Una Poenitentium, the spirit of Gretchen: Er kommt zurück (“he is returning”), sung with heartfelt love for the immortal part of Faust, which has gained salvation.  There is great drama in this interpretation, not simply reverence – though there is that, too.  It is an altogether remarkable performance.

     Although the name PentaTone refers to the company’s use of five-channel recordings, the engineers chose to leave this one in its original four-channel state and make no changes to its sound – an exceptionally wise decision.  The only quibbles here are with the packaging: it repeatedly prints the wrong total time for the performance, giving it as 70:45 when it is really 75:45; and the texts are omitted – without any suggestion about where to find them online (one excellent source is www.naxos.com/libretti/mahler8.htm).  But these are presentation quibbles, not musical ones.  The music itself is transcendent, and Haitink’s interpretation of it is an unalloyed joy.

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