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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 [80:15]
Christine Brewer, Camilla Nylund, Maria Espada (sopranos)
Stephanie Blythe (mezzo)
Mihoko Fujimura (alto)
Robert Dean Smith (tenor)
Tommi Hakala (baritone)
Stefan Kocán (bass)
Netherlands Radio Choir, State Choir “Latvija”, Bavarian Radio Choir, National Boys Choir, National Children’s Choir
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, 4, 6 March 2011
Bonus: Blu-Ray film of the performance
RCO LIVE RCO13002 [80:15]

The Concertgebouw’s Mahler set - is it going to be a cycle? - continues with this splendid version of the Eighth. It’s thrilling, one of the finest, and its crowning glory is the stellar playing of the orchestral musicians. What a wonderful team they are. Their heritage in Mahler is close to unparalleled and with a conductor of Jansons’ pedigree at their helm things can hardly go wrong. There is a glorious sheen on the string sound, with brass of incomparable richness and depth. They are incredible - and incredibly clear - in the climaxes; the earth-shaking ending of Part One is thrilling. Perhaps they come into their own during the long introduction to the second part, with plangent winds over shimmering strings, giving way to low brass and contrabassoon that have all the solidity of a cornerstone. The outburst at 5:40 (track 7) has the drama and pace of an operatic recitative and I loved the way Jansons takes the phrase, later to return as the chorus of the younger angels, at 8:02, slow and serious but still with the tiniest hint of the playfulness that will characterise it when it returns. The frequent solos are also outstanding, such as the violin and viola at the start of Uns bleibt ein Erdenrest in the second part, or the crisp brightness of the percussion throughout. As I said of them when they did Mahler’s Ninth Symphony as part of the 2013 Edinburgh Festival, they’re also not afraid to make an ugly sound when required; listen to how earthy the bells sound in the first movement. In their hands the colours of this vast canvas stick out more strikingly than in any other interpretation I’ve come across in a long time.
 
Jansons’ pacing of the score is brilliant throughout. The second part builds with momentous inevitability towards its final chorus, but Jansons gives each theme special attention on its first appearance so as to point up what it is going to become when it returns and is transformed into something grander, a skill which reveals him as a true musical architect. He isn’t ashamed to embrace the slightly kitsch elements of Mahler’s score, either: the first appearance of the Mater Gloriosa’s theme on the violins and harmonium (at the beginning of track 13), for example, has both a classy shimmer and a healthy helping of schmaltz, and the children at Gloria Patri Domino are a wonderful combination of a choir of angels with a football crowd. The best thing about his performance, though, is the stunning sense of security that he seems to inspire in all of his performers and, consequently, in the listener. You get this right from the opening wave of Part One which sounds unusually tight and homogeneous, clearly the result of some very careful crafting with no loose edges or issues. It is this sense of certainty, the conviction that nothing can go wrong, that gives the work its remarkably compelling sense of propulsion right from beginning to end.
 
The singing of the - many - choirs is impeccable throughout, and the soloists are a dream team too. Christine Brewer and Camilla Nylund make a majestic, creamy pair of lead sopranos, and Maria Espada gleams as the Mater Gloriosa. Stephanie Blythe is solid, but Mihoko Fujimura is remarkable in her dark tone. Robert Dean Smith sings with an almost religious sense of conviction in the second part, and it is only the slightly gravelly, unfocused basses that are less than ideal.
 
A particular plaudit should also go to the RCO Live engineers. They give us recorded sound that is quite exceptional, and I was listening only in 2.0 stereo: the SACD must be breathtaking. Giving the listener such total confidence in the technical side of things means that you are free to revel in the quality of the performance, which is astoundingly good. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Mahler 8 where so much is so clearly audible, and for that we owe them a big debt of thanks.
 
Every library needs to have Solti’s Mahler 8 in it, and of more recent versions Rattle’s is still my favourite, but Jansons runs it pretty close, and it is a joy to have it. Another joy is that a bonus disc gives you a film of the performance too, so you can have even more fun watching it as well as listening.
 
Simon Thompson

Masterwork Index: Mahler 8

See also review by John Quinn - July 2013 Recording of the Month (with DVD bonus disc)

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