Every so often there appears a recording so good, so almost revelatory, that we find ourselves re-examining the work recorded and our relationship to it, no matter how well we thought we already knew it. Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake's recording of Schumann's Dichterliebe was one of the more recent recordings to do this. Now we have Kent Nagano's amazing reading of (and Harmonia Mundi's equally amazing engineering of) Mahler's massive Symphony No. 8. Many excellent recordings of this work already exist, and all of them bring a number of insights and extraordinary performances to the work. None of them, however, quite equals Nagano's overall vision of the work, and no recording of the symphony can match the impressive acoustic accomplishments found here.
No matter who records it, of course, Mahler's eighth symphony is unique in many ways. For instance, it is his one work that is hopeful and optimistic throughout. While other works may end in triumph — the first, second, and fifth symphonies immediately come to mind — they get there only after dealing with anguish and/or melancholy. By combining the Latin hymn "Veni creator spiritus" with the final scene of Goethe's Faust, the eighth sings only of salvation and spiritual transcendence, without any sorrow or pain. Further, the symphony is firmly grounded in E-flat major, beginning and ending in bold assertions of that tonality. Its solid and reaffirmed tonality is a break from other works that demonstrate what problematically has been called Mahler's "progressive" tonality, which refers to a work ending in a different tonal center than it began in. And it is the one symphony that is sung throughout. "Can you conceive of a symphony that would be sung from beginning to end?" wrote Mahler. "The singing voice becomes at the same time an instrument . . ." Add to this the massive forces needed to perform it — a large orchestra, two choruses and children's chorus, and eight vocal soloists of whom some heroic singing is required — and we have a work of unusual scope, even for Mahler.
What makes this recording unique and especially notable is the stunning clarity Nagano gets from these huge forces. His ability to bring forth Mahler's contrapuntal writing is nearly unprecedented. Not since Herbert von Karajan's chamber music-like reading of Wagner's Ring has so large a work been performed with such aural clarity. Vocal and instrumental lines grow out of each other and then work together to create the source for yet another line, and Nagano and his ensemble articulate all of this with such a sure hand that every note and every phrase seem inevitable and spontaneous. In the first movement, for instance, the difficult and often muddy passage that begins "Accende lumen sensibus" is nothing short of astounding: the choral parts remain vivid against the thick orchestration, which is immaculately executed. This passage can threaten chaos — I once heard a major symphony almost completely derail in the middle of it — but here it is as crystalline as a string quartet without losing a bit of its driving power. This clarity also helps the listener hear Mahler's sophisticated thematic unity in this work. Themes from the first movement are often used to great effect in the second movement, and Nagano is subtle but insistent in his emphasis of those themes at key moments. The final orchestral passage, for instance, which recalls the opening of the first movement, is even more transcendent than usual; all facets of the texture shimmer simultaneously, and instead of merely seeming loud — which it is — it seems full and rich and, if I may use the word again, inevitable. Even the organ in this recording has an unusally clear and bright presence.
The first movement is rather brisk but never rushed. It has an excitement, almost a fervor, as if the conductor and the performers hold the Creative Spirit of the text in a kind of breathless awe. By the time we get to the overlapping scales at the movement's climax, the excitement is palpable. The second movement is more relaxed, slower and more atmospheric. By the end, however, the hush of the "Alles Vergängliche" chorus suggests a different kind of awe, one that leads directly from introspection to the eternity-evoking power of the orchestral finale.
Nagano is aided in all of this by excellent performers and the sound of the recording. The orchestra plays with warmth and an almost delicate sense of phrasing, but it is at the same time capable of the tremendous power called for at any given moment. Perhaps the most impressive quality of the playing is the sensitivity to texture throughout the performance: the work has never before seemed such a delicate and transparent weaving of lines, even at its most extroverted moments. The players at all times seem to be vigilant listeners as well as bravura performers, a skill not encountered as often as it should be. The vocal soloists are for the most part in the same league. Tenor Robert Gambill often sounds as if he is struggling in his approach to a note, reaching up when he shouldn't have to, but his performance has other moments of memorable beauty. In the first movement, listen to the phrase "dissolve litis," as Gambill joins a third-line B-flat to an A-flat above the staff while executing a decrescendo; it is glorious, as is his singing of the "Blikket auf" section in the second movement. Likewise, while Lynne Dawson's three high B-flats (as Una Poenitentium) sound increasingly challenging, the rest of her solo work in the second movement is powerful yet serene. Sally Matthews has no such issues with her pianissimo high B-flat a bit later in the movement. One of the scarier entrances for a soprano in this or any other work, this passage floats effortlessly in Matthews's voice. The rest of the soloists deliver with unfaltering lovely sound and textual insight.
The choruses are superb and unusually sensitive to their changing roles in the symphony. In the second movement, for instance, they provide some of the most beautiful of the many beautiful moments in the performance. In the opening of the movement, after an incredibly balanced and controlled introductory orchestral passage, the male chorus enters with vocal colors that suggest, as Mahler mentioned in the quote above, that the voices are indeed instruments and the words are conveyors of specific and evocative sound as well as of literal meaning.
All of this is made possible and highlighted by disc's amazing sound. Every decibel level is equally clear and pronounced, and the loud passages shine just as the intimate passages do. The balance that Nagano accomplishes is emphasized by the production, which ensures that the listener is never unaware of the almost unending counterpoint of the work, of the melodies and phrases that weave in and out of each other in sometimes highly complex relationships. Few passages test the abilities of production (or reproduction) as well as the finale of this symphony, from the hushed final chorus "Alles Vergängliche" to the end, and this recording sets a new standard. The sound of these discs is simply breathtaking.
The CDs are beautifully packaged and come with excellent, and detailed, notes in English, German, and French by Habakuk Traber (English translation by Charles Johnston) as well as the full texts for the work.
Mahler referred to this symphony as "a great dispenser of joy." Surely that is also an apt description of this recording, an essential item for anyone serious about the symphonies of Mahler and the eighth in particular. It really is an amazing accomplishment, and it is one of, if not the, most satisfying and moving performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 I have ever heard.
Jim Lovensheimer, Ph.D.
Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University