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Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 8 “Symphony of a Thousand”
24 Jul 2006

MAHLER: Symphony no. 8

Recorded approximately 35 years ago in September 1971, Bernard Haitink’s performance of Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony remains a classic account of the composer’s demanding score.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 8 “Symphony of a Thousand”

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, Bernard Haitink, conductor.

Pentatone Classics 5186 166 [CD/SACD]

$18.99  Click to buy

Originally released on then-high quality line of Philips Classics LPs and later reissued on CD, the Pentatone system reprocesses the multi-channel source by using the source without any artificial enhancement. As indicated in the liner notes, this issue in the RQR series preserves the original four-channel recording in its attempt, as the engineer Jean Marie Geijsen states, “to do justice to the original intentions of both artists and technicians.”

As a result, the reissue of this famous recording has an incredibly clear sound and dynamic sound. Moreover, a score like Mahler’s Eighth Symphony can be particularly telling in this regard because of the range of sounds, from the full orchestra, chorus, and soloists, along with organ and additional instruments, to chamber-music-like sonorities that stand in sharp contrast to those tutti sections. The famous LP release of this very work by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti on London was noted for its fine sonics at the time, and yet not all audio systems could reproduce the nuances that were part of that recording; yet with the advent of CD technology, clearer sound was more easily reproduced. Certainly this is true of the Philips issue of Haitink’s famous 1971 recording of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. Yet this remastering for SACD technology makes it possible to hear the recording anew with the assurance of well-grounded technology behind the release.

The technology certainly clarifies what is already present in this fine recording. Without changing any musical aspect of Haitink’s solid treatment of the score, the issue on Pentatone Classics is a direct transfer that takes advantage of recent advances in CD technology. The result is a very clear and focused sound that makes the recording sound direct and engaing.

With a conductor like Haitink, whose forte is in bringing out details with focus and balance, this is a fine example of his work. It is possible, for example, to hear the diminuendo of the horn line in the opening section, just before the entrance of the solo voices. Likewise, the counterpoint is audibly present, not just something apparent when the listener takes the score to the recording. When the texture is purely vocal, the recording system allows the sonority a certain presence that may not have been that pleasant to hear when rendered by some LP systems, even with the quadraphonic sound that Philips originally promised.

A telling spot is the section “Infirma nostri corporis” (band three of the twenty-one bands on this recording), where there is a pronounced exchange between the solo violin and the voices, a difficult texture to achieve in the concert hall, depending on its acoustics. The chorus must also balance the brass in this section without either overbalancing – the wise conductor leaves the sections the opportunity to challenge each other later in the work as it draws to a conclusion in the culminating “Gloria sit Patri Domino” (band 7). While critics have sometimes accused Haitink of holding back, it is his strategic adherence to the score that makes a performance like this one memorable for the drama that he allows to emerge from the music itself, rather than superimpose on it a faulty conception that forces climaxes into sonorities that should be solid and full – blocks of sound that Mahler used to build the architecture of this score.

It is reassuring to hear this kind of performance without in the medium of SACD technology. The sounds are focused and intense, such that it is possible to hear the clear articulations of the choruses in the section “Accende lumen sensibus” (band 5). The pure, white sound of the children’s choir is evident in this recording as a timbre as distinct from the other choral sounds. For those who enjoy Haitink’s mastery of this score, this reissue conveys its controlled intensity well.

With the second part, the fine sound helps to establish the tone at outset, with the musical depiction of the anchorites (band 8), a delicate, yet critical element in an effective performance of this work. As much as some audiences find the wash of sound with which Mahler culminates each of the two parts that comprise this Symphony, the full experience of the work also involves the delicate passages that are brilliant in their simplicity. “Gerettet ist das edle Glied,” a passage given to the children’s chorus (band 13) is solidly heard, as the chorus without vibrato evokes the angelic intention of Goethe’s text. When adult female voices enter, the richer tone colors are evident, in a passage that other conductors sometimes fail to emphasize with tempos that make it difficult hear the text enunciated so well.

A similar delicacy occurs in the section “Ich spür’ soeben,” again, where the differences between the vocal timbres are essential to the structure of the work. The male voices, William Cochran, Hermann Prey, and Hans Sotin match each other well, and this emerges well in the latter part of the second section. Like, the women offer some strong performances, with Ileana Contrubas, Heather Harper, and Hanneke van Bork handling soprano parts, and Birgit Finnilä and Marianne Dieleman on the contralto parts. This Pentatone issue treats the voices well, such that the intensity of Haitink’s conducting emerges clearly in the sonorities that he draws from the performers. The full chorus, which carries the conclusion of the movement (“Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis”, band 21) is fully present without a sense of any masked sound that might result from problems with impedance. Rather, the richness of the sound increases, along with the requisite volume as Haitink concludes the piece majestically.

It is a small quibble, but recordings like this are served better with the full text included in the liner notes. Likewise, some notes about the performers often help, as would a discography that traces the provenances of this recording in its various issues from LP to CD and, now, to this SACD. A product of a time when performances of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony were less common, this venerable recording brings to modern audiences a classic rendering of the score. Among the available performances of the Eighth Symphony, Haitink’s remains one that must be heard, especially on this newly remastered CD.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

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