Choir of Eltham College
Choral Arts Society of Washington
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 9-10 July 2008 in St Paul’s Cathedral, London
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0669 [Hybrid CD/SACD] Duration: 77 minutes Reviewed: May 2009
LSO/Gergiev Mahler 8
Reviewed by Christian Hoskins
Valery Gergiev’s Mahler symphony cycle (excluding “Das Lied von der Erde”) with the London Symphony Orchestra, a controversial odyssey, was rounded off with two performances of the Eighth Symphony (the so-called ‘Symphony of a Thousand’) in St Paul’s Cathedral. They have now been edited together for LSO Live.
St Paul’s Cathedral is a tricky place in which to make a recording. The vast internal area is made up of numerous connected subspaces (at least 70 according to one study), each one contributing to the way the sound flows and reflects. The result is a reverberation time of some 10 seconds, a significant feature in this recording.
I mention the acoustic first as it is likely to influence how the performance will be perceived. The cathedral’s resonance frequently results in a swathe of low-pitched instrumental noise enveloping the sound picture. I initially listened on headphones and found the sound wearying after a while. Heard via the multi-channel SACD layer, textures are slightly-better delineated and the sense of space is impressive. Nevertheless, the reverberation blunts the impact of Mahler’s polyphonic writing in Part 1, especially during faster passages such as “Accende lumen sensibus”. Orchestra and choir do a sterling job in difficult conditions, but occasionally the acoustic gets the better of them and the ensemble briefly loses synchronisation.
The choral work is often beautiful, with an impressive contribution from the young singers of Eltham College, and the LSO’s playing is spirited. I was especially moved by the eloquence of the woodwind in the orchestral interlude before the chorus’s hushed “Alles Vergängliche”. For the most part, though, Gergiev lacks an intuitive feel for Mahler’s soundworld, and despite the muddled sonics, frequently makes trumpets and cymbals too loud. Apart from Ailish Tynan, all of the vocal soloists were members of Gergiev’s Mariinsky Theatre company at the time of the performances. Their contributions are generally solid if somewhat unidiomatic, although – in Part 2, setting the final scene of Goethe’s “Faust” – the diction of Sergey Semishkur as Doctor Marianus and Viktoria Yastrebova as Magna Peccatrix leaves much to be desired (perhaps due to the latter being a last-minute substitution).
Despite occasionally impressive moments, this is a performance that all too often fails to illuminate the lyricism and grandeur of Mahler’s inspiration. Given the insights brought to the music by conductors such as Solti (Decca), Tennstedt (EMI) and Bernstein (a superb Deutsche Grammophon DVD), this is just not a competitive release.