Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Mahler 8 (Symphony of a Thousand) [Deutsche Grammophon]

3 of 5 stars


Symphony No.8 in E-flat

Angela Meade (soprano I; Magna Peccatrix), Erin Wall (soprano II; Mater Gloriosa), Lisette Oropesa (soprano III; Una Poenitentium), Elizabeth Bishop (contralto I; Mulier Samaritana), Mihoko Fujimura (contralto II; Maria Aegyptiaca), Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor; Doctor Marianus), Markus Werba (baritone; Pater Ecstaticus) & John Relyea (bass; Pater Profundus)

Westminster Symphonic Choir; The Choral Arts Society of Washington; The American Boychoir

Philadelphia Orchestra

Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Recorded March 2016 at Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: August 2020
Duration: 83 minutes



Yannick Nézet-Séguin turned in some memorable performances of large-scale choral works at London’s Royal Festival Hall when he was the much-admired Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic between 2008 and 2014. Dedicated accounts of Poulenc’s Stabat Mater and Brahms’s German Requiem subsequently made their way onto disc, the latter conspicuously and controversially slow but compelling in its own way. Since that time Nézet-Séguin’s career has gone from strength to strength, his progress accompanied by a veritable deluge of recordings. A further reclamation of a live event, it was taped during the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2015-16 season, the pacing sufficiently mainstream to allow the physical format to be accommodated on a single, generously filled sound carrier.

It is possible to take the view that Mahler’s Eighth can only be experienced properly ‘in the flesh’ but even then the recent tendency has been to cut down on the numbers, exposing instrumental eddies at the expense of the big wave of sound. For Lucerne in 2016 Riccardo Chailly’s forces reportedly totalled 358, a fairly typical complement these days. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia in 2014 had fewer participants with no overspill into the side stalls, traditional in this work at the Royal Festival Hall.  I don’t know how many performers were present at Verizon Hall but the event was apparently intended to commemorate the hundredth-anniversary of the work’s US premiere, given by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski at the Academy of Music. A poster of 1916 promises a chorus of 950 and an orchestra of 110, as well as making an earnest entreaty of lady patrons to remove their hats during the performance! So far so good.

Start listening though and the effect is less than overwhelming. The organ at the start – a real one so no need for the sonic gerrymandering of Georg Solti’s 1971 Sofiensaal sessions – sounds deficient in the bass, the choral forces a little circumspect. Much the same could be said of the interpretation of Part One. This is Solti-lite, bright and efficient to be sure though without his brazen edginess. I had expected caution to be thrown to the winds with a great forward surge at “Accende lumen sensibus”. It doesn’t quite happen. Nor is there any trace of Solti’s (or even Chailly’s) last-minute ritardando into the recapitulation. Inauthentic or not, those larger re-writings of Leonard Bernstein or Klaus Tennstedt give the music a surer sense of direction and set the spine tingling. Worse, the soloists are a rum bunch. In place of the tight focus of a Heather Harper or a Julia Varady, Nézet-Séguin has first soprano Angela Meade whose lustrous Verdian heft seems ill-suited to the writing. Erin Wall, marginally fresher-sounding, has a similar kind of vibrato. The tenor is Anthony Dean Griffey, in fine vocal health for Michael Tilson Thomas in this same part as recently as 2008 yet here sounding parched and effortful with a beat in the voice. Should we blame the composer for the ungratefully high tessitura of so much of the writing? Baritone Markus Werba and bass John Relyea have an easier job in Part Two, the former outstanding, the latter nothing if not committed and in truth a little shouty. As the Mater gloriosa Lisette Oropesa sounds suitably heavenly and was apparently perched on the top tier of Verizon Hall “in a white gown and voice sounding, well, gloriosa” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

There is an extrovert quality about much of the music-making in Part One which carries over into the Goethe setting. However gloriously finished, its orchestral introduction lacks intensity, the more disquieting elements held at one remove. Some will no doubt prefer this to portentousness, claiming that this is one work in which Mahler avoids neurotic introspection. In which case the episodic character of what follows, the operatic quality of the soloists and the touches of sugar-frosting might be ascribed to Mahler’s breadth of theatrical experience (as well as Nézet-Séguin’s) rather than representing a miscalculation. Technically there are great things from the strings (including honeyed, golden age portamento) and the choruses prove capable of a real pianissimowhenever the opportunity arises. The final Chorus Mysticus is almost wonderful, bronchial intrusions notwithstanding. That said, the large scale and slowed pulse scarcely feel the inevitable outcome of the whole as with Bernstein, Tennstedt et al.

The incidence of audience noise suggests that there can have been little or no opportunity for retakes or for the patching-in of rehearsal material even though four renditions were given. If this is indeed more in the nature of a repurposed one-off broadcast it is perhaps remarkable that the orchestral finish should be as silky as it is. With immediately enthusiastic applause retained this is more a souvenir of a glamorous night than a locus classicus of spiritual grandeur. Its attractions are enhanced by excellent annotations, texts and translations. Oh, I am advised that Nézet-Séguin mustered 420 performers.

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