The London Philharmonic have already issued on their own label several important recordings of Mahler performances by Klaus Tennstedt. There’s a recording of the First Symphony, which I’ve not yet heard (LPO-0012) and magnificent accounts of the Sixth Symphony (review) and ‘Resurrection’ (review). Now here’s a recording of the Eighth that threatens to trump even those aces.
This performance of Mahler’s Eighth will be familiar to some collectors as it has been available as a DVD for some time in an EMI set that also includes a 1990 Tennstedt performance of the First Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. If you already have that set you may feel it unnecessary to acquire these CDs but I’d argue there are two reasons why you should consider doing so. Firstly, the DVD is an edited version of two performances on consecutive evenings whereas this CD release gives us one complete performance from the first of those two concerts. Secondly, and more importantly, if, like me, you don’t have your television hooked up to your hi-fi then these CDs will enable you to hear the performance in much better sound – and, believe me, it’s worth it.
Tennstedt recorded the Eighth in 1986 as part of his EMI studio-made cycle but, fine though that recording is, this is another example of a live performance that transcends his studio work. Also, for this recording he has a larger choir – the EMI recording was made just with the LPO Choir, partnered by the Tiffin School Boys’ Choir. Most of the soloists are different: only Trudeliese Schmidt and Hans Sotin feature on both recordings.
I know Tennstedt divides opinion amongst Mahlerians. I’m an unashamed, though, I hope, not uncritical, admirer and it’s performances such as this one that really make me a Tennstedt follower. I collected his EMI cycle over the years and admired it very much but it was when we started to get live recordings, first from EMI, then from BBC Legends - whatever happened to that valuable label? - and finally from the LPO themselves that I think his true stature as a Mahler conductor was revealed. His performances won’t be to everyone’s taste – he lives too much on the edge for some, I recognise – but at its best his Mahler is very special indeed and this reading of the Eighth shows him at his very best.
At the very start of the ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’, there’s a huge but controlled surge of energy; the performance is well and truly launched. The tempo for the ‘Imple superna gratia’ section is spacious – some may think it too spacious – but I’m convinced. In the passages that follow - the movement is helpfully split into eight tracks - Tennstedt achieves admirable clarity both from his singers and from the orchestra. ‘Accende’ is tumultuous, as is all that flows from that moment. Tennstedt drives his forces onwards but never in an uncontrolled fashion. The boys’ choir, though a fairly small group, cut through well in these pages and Kenneth Riegel and the two soprano soloists are especially effective hereabouts. I must single out particularly Júlia Várady whose singing is simply imperious throughout. The lead up to the reprise of ‘Veni, Creator’ is immense and when the moment itself arrives it’s quite magnificent. The passage beginning ‘Da gaudiorum praemia’ is another one where Tennstedt is expansive but by sheer force of musical will I find he makes his case. He builds that section to a thrilling apotheosis where the organ is superbly ‘present’ – as it is throughout the work, when required. It’s a shame that the organist is uncredited but, happily, we can identify Malcolm Hicks because, rightly, he’s credited on the DVD. The closing pages of the movement are simply overwhelming in their power and majesty, Júlia Várady and Jane Eaglen crowning the ensemble with some thrilling top notes.
This is at times a spacious account of the first movement and it’s noteworthy that Tennstedt takes 26:19 whereas in his 1986 studio traversal he took 24:48. Just out of interest I checked another live recording in my library: Sir Simon Rattle’s 2004 account of this movement is swifter, lasting 23:42 (review) I said in my review of that Rattle performance that Part I of the symphony is all about grandeur, sweeping vision and ecstatic praise. That’s certainly what this Tennstedt reading conveys in spades.
He achieves in Part II what is not easy to bring off: he sees the movement in one sweeping continuum and puts that across to the listener. Once again, he takes a bit longer overall than was the case in the studio recording (57:59 against 61:07 here). I admire the control and patience with which he unfolds the orchestral introduction – excellent, acute playing from the LPO – and the spectral first choral section. Eike Wilm Schulte makes a strong impression as Pater Ecstaticus, taking the wide compass of the role easily. Hans Sotin is a commanding presence as Pater Profundus, singing his solo with fine authority. A little later, after a fresh, innocent rendition of the passages for Angels and Blessed Boys, Kenneth Riegel is ardent and ringing as Doctor Marianus. One might argue that he’s a bit too assertive at the start of ‘Höchste Herrscherin der Welt!’ but he is fearless in the face of Mahler’s punishing tessitura and makes a very good job of ‘Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinne’.
In the episode involving in turn the four principal female soloists Júlia Várady, Jane Eaglen, Trudeliese Schmidt and Jadwiga Rappé all give good accounts of their respective solos. Finally, we hear all too briefly from Susan Bullock. She was positioned in one of the boxes, high above the stage to the conductor’s left and she floats her solo ethereally and with admirable purity. ‘Blicket auf’ is led off strongly by Riegel. I’ve heard more sweetly lyrical readings of this solo but he characterises the music well with some ardent singing. Tennstedt moulds supremely well the substantial ensemble that follows and then achieves a wonderful, delicate transition to the choir’s entry at ‘Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis’ I have never heard this done better. The hushed intensity of the singing as the massed singers murmur their music is just as thrilling, if not more so, that the most clamorous tutti. Tennstedt achieves a real coup here. And then when they repeat the words a few minutes later, but this time at full volume, underpinned by the magisterial organ, it’s also tremendously exciting but in a different way. When the voices can do no more Tennstedt brings the symphony home in a magnificent panoply of orchestral sound.
This performance must have been an overwhelming experience for those fortunate enough to be in the Festival Hall that evening. I do wonder how well the soloists came across in the hall – they were positioned, in two rows, to the conductor’s left behind the violins and immediately in front of the timpani. On disc their sounds register very well. In fact, the recording, which was made by the BBC, is pretty good even though the Festival Hall’s acoustics aren’t ideal for this work – there’s simply not enough space and resonance. However, rest assured, the sound is sufficiently good to give domestic listeners a very good representation of this amazing performance.
The presentation of Part II is very thoughtful: the movement is divided into no less than 18 separate tracks. The documentation is satisfactory, including texts and translations. I rate it only is as “satisfactory” because though the note by Eric Mason is good in as far as it goes it’s all about the music. That’s fine up to a point but for an issue such as this the notes should surely include some comment about the performance itself – the booklet for the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony recording was infinitely better in this respect and, coming after that, this booklet is a bit disappointing.
But the performance is the main thing. Klaus Tennstedt’s inspirational conducting makes this an unforgettable experience and this set will have an honoured place in my collection. We’re knee deep in Mahler recordings at the moment but this one stands out as something very special.
Can I express one hope in closing? These live recordings are enriching our experience of Klaus Tennstedt as a Mahler conductor. I would love to think that the LPO have in their archives concert recordings of him in the Third and Ninth symphonies and in Das Lied von der Erde. If so, I hope they’ll lose no time in issuing them, especially since Tennstedt’s studio recordings of the Ninth and of Das Lied were relative disappointments in his EMI cycle. For now, though, don’t delay in adding this extraordinary, visionary reading of the Eighth to your collection.