While Mahler’s music is heard with increasing regularly in the latter part of the twentieth century, his works were not completely ignored after World War II. Yet recordings of his symphonies were rare, especially when it comes to something as demanding as the Eighth. The Hamburg performance on this recent Gala CD dates from that time, which is just after Leopold Stokowski recorded the Eighth in 1950. Led by the composer-theorist Winfried Zillig (1905-63), this performance is a fine effort, which stands well when compared to other recordings of the time. The soloists are suited to the task and include a young Herman Prey and youthful Franz Crass; the choruses worked well together in a nicely blended sound. And if there is a weakness it is in the orchestral sound, which falls short at times. The first section of the Eighth, “Veni Creator Spiritus,” is nicely paced and the modest tempos allow for a sense of clarity to emerge. Yet those familiar with the score will find some awkward transitions and, unfortunately, a disappointing ending to the movement. The abrupt cutoff does not fit the style, sounding more tacked on than conclusive.
The second part, the setting of the conclusion of the second part of Goethe’s Faust is similar in concept. The opening section seems louder and more direct than indicated in the score, with the chorus of anchorites more prominent than later conductors might allow. Some of the other passages are well sung, but on the whole, the performance seems to be an accumulation of sections. Yet among those sections, the solo of the Pater Ecstaticus “Ewiger Wonnebrand” receives a notable and impassioned reading by Prey. Elsewhere, the tempos sometimes drag, with some uncharacteristic results in the section “Ich spur’ soeben,” a point where the solo tenor interacts with the chorus. A similar situation occurs later in the passage “Bei der Liebe,” in which the tempos flag at the expense of building toward the concluding section. It is unfortunate, though, that the final section of the second part occurs on the second disc and does not continue from the music which precedes it. While other conductors might shape the phrases differently, the Zillig does bring the performance to a satisfying conclusion. In some places the instrumentalists seem a bit taxed, but the solo voices and, especially, the chorus sustain the intensity implicit in the score.
In addition to the Eighth Symphony, this recording includes a performance on 19 August 1951 by the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau of Mahler’s cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with the Vienna Philharmonic led by Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Salzburg Festival. This recording shows Fischer-Dieskau to fine effect with music he return to at various times in his lengthy career. Here, the involvement of Furtwängler is also of interest in a vivid recording of this familiar work. Also included is a slightly later performance by Fischer-Dieskau of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder with the NDR-Sinfonieorchester conducted by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt on 6 June 1955. The two-disc set also includes Hugo Wolf’s Gesänge des Harfners sung by Herman Prey and also accompanied y the NDR-Sinfonieorchester led by Schmidt-Issersted from 13 September 1955. A bonus is the inclusion of Hans Werner Henze’s Fünf Neapolitanische Lieder from 19 September 1956 (again with the NDR-Sinfonieorchester and conducted by Schmidt-Isserstedt).
As important as the Mahler recordings are to document the composer’s reception at a time when his music needed champions to bring it to performance, they also represent the work of two major German singers, Prey and Fischer-Dieskau, who would become some of the most important voices of their generation in the decades that followed. At the same time, the efforts of the Schoenberg student Winfried Zillig are preserved in this rare recording of the Eighth. At a time when Mahler’s works were rarely heard, it is reassuring to know of the efforts to perform one of the composer’s more demanding scores.
James L. Zychowicz