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Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 8
16 Mar 2008

MAHLER: Symphony no. 8.

While a number of fine recordings of Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony have been released in recent years, the prospect of a performance conducted by Pierre Boulez is attractive for many reasons.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 8

Twyla Robinson, Erin Wall, Adriane Queiroz, Michelle De Young, Simone Schröder, Johan Botha, Hanno Müller-Brachmann, Robert Holl, Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin, Rundfunkschor Berlin, Aurelius Sängerknaben Calw, Staatskapelle Berlin, Pierre Boulez (cond.)

Deutsche Grammophon 477 6597 [2CDs]

$17.99  Click to buy

The recordings of other symphonies by Mahler that Boulez led over the last decade, demonstrate the conductor’s incisive approach to the literature, and this release of the Eighth Symphony, based on performances recorded in April 2007 at Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin, has much to offer.

As with his other recordings of Mahler’s music, Boulez brings a sense of a the architecture of the Eighth Symphony to this recording, which benefits from fine acoustics and spacious sound. The pacing of the first part of the Eighth, Mahler’s setting of the Latin hymn text “Veni creator spiritus,” is spirited without being extravagantly impetuous. The solid walls of sound with which the movement opens in its invocation of the Holy Spirit gives way to finer textures of the text “Imple superna gratia,” with its shift from massed chorus to vocal soloists. Even there, the careful placement and balanced sound of the instrumental elements accentuates the motivic interplay at the structural core of the movement. Beyond the juxtaposition of forces, the soloists themselves are particularly suited to present the music well, with nicely matched voices that bring to the recording an evenly mature and vibrant sound. Those familiar with the work will want to explore the movement further by taking advantage of the exemplary banding used in the recording, which delineates the major sections of this extraordinary movement. The breadth of expression and the clear distinction between sections contributes to a sense of pacing, so that Boulez can create momentum toward the climax of the “Veni creator spiritus” in the final passages that begin with the text “Gloria sit Patri Domino.” At this point the multiple choruses work together not only to meet the dynamic levels found in the score, but also to arrive at an intensity of sound. As one contrapuntal passages concludes, another intersects, thus bringing to mind the composer’s comments about his idea of setting the various planets and suns spinning – no “Universe” Symphony in the sense that Ives sketched such his ultimately incomplete work, the momentum Boulez has created in this recording calls to mind the heaven-storming sonorities Beethoven used in his Ninth Symphony and the Missa solemnis.

Yet Mahler’s intention is deeper in connection the Latin text of the first part with the German one of the second, as he illuminates the final scene of Goethe’s Faust with the spiritual dimension of the sequence associated with Pentecost. Stepping back from the powerful sounds with which the first part concludes, the second begins with the starkness of the anchorites’ world. The differentiation is palpable with Boulez, who brings out the various sonorities through attention to the articulations and nuanced dynamics. In such a way the intensity of the extended introduction to the second part sets up the vocal interplay that follows through the presentation of motives that will recur with the vocal sections. As the anchorites call our to each other, the vocal parts balance the instrumental forces and convey well the symphonic style Mahler used in this work.

Uniformly strong, the selection of solo voices makes this particular recording of the Eighth worth hearing. Notable among them is the fine young soprano Erin Wall and the mezzo Michelle de Young, whose voice may be familiar to Mahlerians from the recent recording of the Third Symphony by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Bernard Haitink. Robert Holl has given the role of Pater profundis a welcome drama that emerges within the interplay of instrumental motives. Likewise, the tenor Johan Botha offers a fine reading of the part of Doctor Marianus, which is in itself demanding. Botha brings a ringing and resonant tone to the solo that matches Holl’s intensity.

If the solo voices seem to have been recorded perhaps more closely than the choruses, it is not at the expense of the overall effect, which benefits from the clear presentation of the text throughout the work. Such presentation is also evident in the tempos that Boulez has used in various sections, such as the portion that begins “Gerettet ist das edle Glied,” where the timbre of the children’s voices underscores the verses. As in the choral timbres Ralph Vaughan Williams used in his “Sea Symphony,” the voices must convey both the text and the musical texture, and Boulez succeeds in this regard, such that the choruses interact decidedly with the solo voices. More than that the three female soloists blend convincingly in the section that starts “Bei der Liebe,” a passage distinctive for its scoring of soprano and two contraltos.

In the two-part structure of Eighth Symphony, the Latin hymn finds its complement in the vernacular drama of Goethe, and Boulez creates a fitting and effective conclusion. His tempos allow him to make the immense forces expressive. Never rushed, never impetuous, Boulez remains in control of the forces that work together toward the climactic passage that is set into motion with the resolute “Komm” of the Mater gloriosa prior to the suggestive words of Doctor Marianus as “Blicket auf” moves from solo voice to the chorus. This connects persuasively to the choral setting of Goethe’s famous text, “Alles vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis,” perhaps the most familiar phrase from the second part of Faust. Here the clear, almost a piacere treatment of the music helps to emphasize the passage as Boulez brings the work to a fitting and decisive conclusion. The resonance of the forces emerges well in the recording, as Boulez paces the final passage that clearly juxtaposes “Alles vergängliche ist nu rein Gleichnis” with “Das Ewig-Weiblich zieht uns hinan.” The majestic ending evokes the conclusion of the Third Symphony, through the dramatically sustained sonorities. All in all this is a fitting ending, too, to the Mahler cycle Boulez began years ago and concludes with this powerful reading of the composer’s Eighth Symphony.

James L. Zychowicz

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