Symphony No.8 Symphony of a Thousand
Jane Eaglen (soprano I/Magna Peccatrix), Anne Schwanewilms (soprano II/Una Poenitentium), Ruth Ziesak (soprano III/Mater Gloriosa), Sara Fulgoni (contralto I/Mulier Samaritana), Anna Larsson (contralto II/Maria Aegyptiaca), Ben Heppner (tenor/Doctor Marianus), Peter Mattei (baritone/Pater Ecstaticus), Jan-Hendrik Rootering (bass/Pater Profundus)
Prague Philharmonic Choir (choir 1), Netherlands Radio Choir (choir 2), Youth choirs of Kathedrale Koor St Bavo and Sacramentskoor
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: April 2001
CD No: Decca 467 314-2
It’s 30 years since Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Solti with his Chicago Symphony recorded Mahler 8 – both performances were taped in the same month, September 1971. Solti’s achieved classic status when released in 1972. How does Chailly’s new recording fare with Decca’s acclaimed Solti set?
Well, for anyone collecting Chailly’s on-going Mahler cycle, Chailly’s hallmarks are present: faithfulness to the score, a fastidious ear for instrumental sonority and a refreshing refusal to over-indulge the music. Of course, he has one of the best orchestras in the world at his disposal, with a Mahler pedigree that dates back to the composer himself. I would argue that the Concertgebouw is the very best Mahler orchestra; Chailly continues the line of excellent Concertgebouw Mahler interpreters from Willem Mengelberg through Bernard Haitink.
Yet Chailly’s Mahler 8 opens with its greatest disappointment. It seems wilfully to contradict Mahler’s tempo indication – Allegro impetuoso – and its rather too measured tread causes a problem at figure 17 where Chailly ignores Mahler’s ’tempo 1’ and adopts a much quicker speed. The text begins ’Come Creator Spirit’ – religious fervour. Chailly’s opening seems too sanctimonious and respectful, and the performance takes time to get over this initial (dispiriting) impression. One other point: the upbeat to the last bar of Part 1 is marked as a quaver for trombones and tuba. This dotted-rhythm has been a feature of the preceding 25 minutes, and only Tennstedt (EMI) allows you to hear it clearly. Chailly (or his recording engineers) fails to make this audible, a problem common to most recordings.
The twice-as-long second part sets the final scene of Goethe’s Faust and begins with a particularly evocative and eerie orchestral opening. While the pretension of the words and their overbearingly redemptive pleadings leave me stone cold, Mahler’s music builds through a variety of nicely contrasted mood-changes to a stunning climax, which Chailly controls incredibly well. His team of soloists, with Jane Eaglen moving up from her second-soprano role in Tennstedt’s live RFH video recording from 1991 (EMI) to pole position, is a fine one, blending judiciously. Singer-preferences may swing the balance to other, more starry, recordings (Solti uppermost, with Heather Harper, Lucia Popp, Arleen Auger and Yvonne Minton setting the standard) and, if pushed, I would have to stick to Tennstedt’s EMI audio recording with his beloved London Philharmonic because his commitment to the work seems so total.
Having said that, and with the opening blip aside, Chailly’s is a fine and insightful recording, which may well persuade me architecturally with repeated listening.