February 06, 2020


Mahler: Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”). Emily Newton, Michaela Kaune and Ashley Thouret, sopranos; Iris Vermillion and Mihoko Fujimura, altos; Brenden Patrick Gunnell, tenor; Markus Eiche, baritone; Karl-Heinz Lehner, bass; Tschechischer Philharmonischer Chor Brno, Slowakischer Philharmonischer Chor Bratislava, Knabenchor der Chorakademie Dortmund, and Dortmunder Philharmoniker conducted by Gabriel Feltz. Dreyer Gaido. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”). Manuela Uhl, Polina Pastirchak and Fatma Said, sopranos; Katrin Wundsam, mezzo-soprano; Katharina Magiera, alto; Neal Cooper, tenor; Hanno Müller-Brachmann, baritone; Peter Rose, bass; Choir of the Städtischer Musikverein zu Düsseldorf, Philharmonischer Chor Bonn, Kartäuserkantorie Köln, Clara-Schumann-Jugendchor Düsseldorf, and Düsseldorfer Symphoniker conducted by Adam Fischer. Avi. $17.99.

     Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 attained its famous sobriquet after the composer led the first performance, on September 12, 1910, with a complement of 1,008 musicians and singers. Yet even that number would not be enough in the future, Mahler suggested: he preferred that the two harps be doubled and suggested that in very large halls, the first player in each woodwind section should be doubled and the number of strings increased. But then what to do in smaller halls and less-grandiose circumstances? The composer left no suggestions on that topic and would perhaps not have approved of the work being played in any venue that could not accommodate a thousand or more performers. That has left some very basic decision-making about this gigantic symphony/cantata to conductors and to producers of concerts and recordings. Two excellent new versions of the symphony make very different decisions about it – and, in testimony to just how transcendent this music is, both lead to highly convincing and deeply moving performances that nevertheless differ in fundamental ways.

     Gabriel Feltz’s recording on Dreyer Gaido uses the lesser complement of performers, “only” about 300, as befits a release assembled from live performances at Konzerthaus Dortmund. The acoustics of the hall are such that the sound of the work is remarkably full, and the engineering of the two-SACD set provides depth and clarity that further refine the overall auditory experience. It was not really necessary to spread the release onto two discs: Feltz’s pacing brings the symphony in at about 82 minutes, and quite a few recent recordings have been released of that length or longer without any diminution of audio quality (the elimination of the unnecessary applause at the work’s very end would have reduced the time a bit as well). Be that as it may, Feltz offers a magisterial performance with exceptional attention to the thematic unity that Mahler brought to a work whose two parts are, on the surface, as different as they can possibly be. By using and reusing themes from the opening Veni, creator spiritus in the Schlußszene aus “Faust,” Mahler draws attention to the way in which the creative spirit permeates this entire work and also inspires (literally “breathes into”) both the ninth-century hymn and the 19th-century work of Goethe. Feltz gets the grandeur (and, in truth, the grandiosity) of this conception exactly right, and the combination of motivic connections with especially strong attention to the portions of the work using massed voices results in a performance whose beauty is that of a cantata/oratorio on a massive scale. Feltz certainly knows how to bring forth the effect of his choruses: the utter silences of this performance punctuate it elegantly, and the almost-silences are particularly impressive, notably when the chorus barely emerges for the first time in the work’s second part (a technique Mahler first used in his “Resurrection” symphony). The very last chorus, with its celebration of a mystical union of souls with the Virgin Mary – called not only “the eternal feminine” by Goethe and Mahler but also “goddess,” a decidedly nontraditional appellation that is at variance with accepted Christian thinking – crowns this performance with the resounding magnificence that Mahler sought, even using less than one-third the complement of musicians he called for and himself used.

     Adam Fischer’s recording on the Avi label is a bit faster-paced – 77 minutes on a single disc – and uses far more performers than Feltz’s, nearly 600. Yet this is a more-ethereal reading than Feltz’s. Fischer focuses not on Mahler’s ability to generate enormous levels of sound but on his skill, so evident in other symphonies, for creating delicate, chamber-music-like effects through use of individual instruments, or small groups of them, within an overall very large force. Fischer’s choruses enunciate more clearly than do Feltz’s, and when individual voices are called for within choruses or between them, those sections are very distinct indeed. The same is true of purely instrumental portions of the symphony: the instrumental interlude in the first movement is exceptionally well-handled here, as is the truly lovely strings-and-harp section in the second movement, just before the words Dir, der Unberührbaren. Like Feltz’s, Fischer’s release is assembled from several live performances – mounting this symphony as a studio recording is quite unusual nowadays, given the sheer scale of the requirements – and Fischer seems energized by the perfectly quiet audience in indefinable but somehow clear ways. The solo voices here are somewhat lighter than those used by Feltz – Fischer even chooses a mezzo-soprano instead of one of the two altos Mahler calls for – but far from detracting from the seriousness of the musical message, the comparative lightness produces a clearer and more-direct sense of communication with the audience than in Feltz’s grander and broader conception. The very end of the symphony in the two performances is indicative of the different approaches: Feltz builds to a final chorus that sweeps over the audience and carries it and the music into a flood of emotion; Fischer focuses strongly on the instrumental section immediately before the last chorus, producing an effect that is genuinely magical, but the chorus itself is somewhat more matter-of-fact than under Feltz – it is heartfelt, yes, but in a way that is perhaps more human and less heavenly. Feltz’s overall pacing is likely closer to Mahler’s in 1910: that performance reportedly ran 85 minutes. But Fischer’s brisker tempos never seem rushed, and they make the symphony appear, if anything, more eager to communicate its message of overwhelming and unending heavenly bliss and the ultimate acceptance of wer immer strebend sich bemüht (“whoever always strives and aspires”). Lovers of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” will not go wrong with either of these recordings – or both. They show quite clearly just how astonishing is the communicative power of this amazing (and in some ways very strange) symphony-that-is-more-than-a-symphony. And they show that in very different ways and with very different-sized complements of performers. Neither of these releases is the “Symphony of a Thousand” by numerical count, but both connect quite clearly with the intent that led Mahler to put together so gigantic an assemblage for the work’s première.

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