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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E flat major, ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (1906-1907) [89:41]
Orla Boylan, Celena Shafer, Amy Owens (sopranos); Charlotte Hellekant, Tamara Mumford (mezzo-sopranos); Barry Banks (tenor); Markus Werba (baritone); Jordan Bisch (bass)
Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Choristers of The Madeleine Choir School
Utah Symphony Orchestra/Thierry Fischer
rec. live, 19 & 20 February 2016, Salt Lake Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah
Latin & German texts and English translations included

Time was when recordings of Mahler’s Eighth were pretty rare. When I first started collecting records there were only a handful of versions in the catalogue, almost all of them set down as part of complete cycles. In the intervening five decades or so there’s been a radical change – partly because so many conductors now record Mahler cycles. The biggest change, however, is that it’s become a fairly regular occurrence to issue live performances, which mitigates the expense of assembling vast forces for sessions under studio conditions. As a result, we currently list no less than 30 versions in our Masterworks Index plus one version that’s an arrangement for solo organ. Those recordings, which don’t include the present one, only comprise those versions that have come to us for review; we may well have missed one or two along the way. Is there a danger of the work becoming too accessible? In that context, it’s rather humbling to read of the circumstances in which one of the very first live recordings, conducted by Eduard Flipse, came into being.

Of course, live recording, though less expensive than a studio-made version, can be a mixed blessing. At its best it will capture a musically excellent performance and a genuine sense of occasion. One such example is the remarkable Dudamel version, which is probably the best thing I’ve ever seen or heard him do (review). However, the downside is that a live recording can preserve for posterity a performance which, while it may have been a satisfactory experience – or better - on the night, doesn’t really stand up to the scrutiny of repeated listening.

I think it’s appropriate to start this this review by shining the spotlight on someone from the “back room” team. Step forward Mack Wilberg, Music Director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The choral contribution to this performance is as fine as any that I can recall hearing. At a guess there are just under 400 adult singers involved and they make a terrific showing, not least through the clarity with which the various strands of Mahler’s choral writing come through – the engineers should receive plaudits for that, too. It’s evident that Mack Wilberg and his team have prepared the chorus expertly. The choir provides lots of strong, disciplined singing in Part I but, if anything, their contributions to Part II are even more impressive. The female singers – and the children’s choir – make an appealing, fresh sound in the passages for the Angels and Blessed Boys, the singing focused, light and agile. At the end, the hushed entry at ‘Alles vergängliche’ is superbly controlled, the singing magically quiet yet distinct, and a few minutes later, when the choir sings the same words fortissimo they really make the listener sit up and take notice.

The young Choristers of The Madeleine Choir School also do well though I couldn’t hear them as much as I’d have liked in Part I – maybe there simply weren’t enough voices. They come through well enough when they start off the ‘Gloria Patri’ but elsewhere the sound doesn’t have quite the necessary cutting edge. Having said that, though, they are heard to good effect in Part II

The booklet includes a photograph of the performers acknowledging applause at the end of one of the two concerts preserved here. From this it appears that the soloists were placed behind the orchestra and in front of the choir. That leads me to wonder how easily they were heard by the audience. However, they’re well balanced in the recording. It’s a good team. In a performance of this work the soloists can best be judged as individuals in Part II. The ladies do well in the episode for Magna Peccatrix et al though it’s one of the deficiencies of the booklet – of which more later – that it’s not made clear which female singer takes which role. I can guess, but that’s not the same as knowing. It’s much easier, of course, to identify the men. Markus Werba is good as Pater ecstaticus. Unfortunately, he’s rather let down by his conductor who paces the episode too cautiously. As a result, the music feels somewhat earthbound, despite Werba’s best efforts. Barry Banks has an unenviable task with the tenor solos, which are cruelly demanding. For my taste he’s too hefty at ‘Höchste Herrscherin der Welt’. I know the tessitura is demanding but until the last couple of lines Banks’ singing is too loud and lacks finesse. Thankfully, he’s more sensitive at ‘Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinn’ and though ‘Blicket auf’’ is perhaps a bit stalwart he still makes a decent job of it. The pick of the male soloists is Jordan Bisch. He’s quite splendid as Pater profundus and here Fischer paces the music very well indeed. This can seem a very ungrateful solo, the line compassing a very wide range. Often, basses seem strained by the writing and/or are a bit inaccurate with their pitching. Not Bisch. He’s steady as a rock, his tone is evenly produced throughout the whole range of the solo and he sings with great presence. Bravo!

What of Thierry Fischer’s conducting? The first thing to be said is that he draws consistently excellent playing from the Utah Symphony. That’s especially true of Part II. Here, the orchestra plays the long, suspenseful Introduction very well indeed and is equally successful in the ardent passages that immediately follow. There’s commendable delicacy in much of what follows and the orchestra pulls out all the stops at the very end. In Part I the orchestra is also highly effective though here I sometimes felt that orchestral detail was a little bit swamped by the singers – usually it’s the other way round.

Fischer’s interpretation of the score has a lot going for it though I did wonder if he was just a tad cautious in his approach to the symphony’s tumultuous opening and elsewhere. In fact, I didn’t feel that Part I as a whole really swept me off my feet in the way that performances by the likes of Dudamel, Solti or Tennstedt do. And one thing for which I definitely don’t care is the portentous way in which he broadens the tempo at the very end of Part I. Here he overdoes the broadening and the effect is a bit vulgar. I think he holds Part II together pretty well – no easy task – until we get to the intervention of Mater Gloriosa. Here, the singer (Amy Owens, I think) is ideally distanced and she sings very well. From this point onwards, the performance moves to an entirely different level, hitting new heights. The choir is ardent at ‘Blicket auf’ and then, as I’ve already said, they bring off the Chorus Mysticus superbly. The orchestral conclusion is superbly sonorous and this time Fischer judges the tempo ideally.

In summary, Fischer’s account of Mahler’s Eighth isn’t flawless but it has a lot going for it.

I first encountered this recording in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio earlier this year. On a first hearing, my colleagues and I were rather underwhelmed but I’ve subsequently modified my view, having listened to these discs as stereo Hybrid SACDs on my own equipment. It must be the very devil of a job to record these vast forces, not least because the engineering has to be able to do full justice to the huge ensembles in Part I and at the end of Part II but, equally, to report faithfully and sympathetically the more lightly scored passages, especially in Part II. Overall, I think the team from Soundmirror have done a very creditable job. As I’ve already indicated, the recording of the chorus is particularly successful. There’s plenty of oomph at the climaxes and the many delicate episodes are nicely recorded, the sound airy and pleasing. The Salt Lake Tabernacle must be a very large building with an acoustic to match – there’s a noticeable echo at the end of each part of the symphony – but the hall’s resonance has been handled very successfully, I think. The audience is commendably silent throughout and there’s no applause at the end, though I bet that in reality there was a pretty substantial ovation. (The aforementioned photograph taken at the end of the performance clearly shows a standing ovation,)

The booklet is a bit of a curate’s egg. The essay about the music is by Paul Griffiths and it’s very good indeed. However, there are snags with the documentation, I’m afraid. The sung texts and translations are provided but whereas the English translation is printed in black type on a white background and is easy to read, the Latin and German words are in a coloured typeface which is much harder to read. Unfortunately, no one seems to have thought to coordinate the texts with the tracking. The track list on the back of the jewel case (only) correctly identifies five tracks for Part 1 and nine for Part II. However, if you’re following in the booklet, as I have been doing, you might reasonably think that Part I consists of 8 tracks and Part II of 18. Finally, as I said earlier, no indication whatsoever is given as to which female soloist is singing which role in Part II; that’s unpardonable.

Though it’s not explicitly stated, the two performances from which this live recording were derived will have been part of the Utah Symphony’s 75th anniversary season. This set, despite a few flaws, is a worthy souvenir.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan