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Mahler: Symphony No. 8 - Nott

Mahler: Symphony No. 8 - Nott

Tudor  SACD 7192

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Mahler: Symphony No. 8

Janina Baechle, Lioba Braun, Michaela Kaune, Marisol Montalvo, Manuela Uhl, Albert Dohmen, Michael Nagy, Stefan Vinke
Chor der Bamberger Symphoniker
Tschechischer Philharmonischer Chor
Windsbacher Knabenchor
Bamberger Symphoniker
Jonathan Nott

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Review by John Miller - September 28, 2013

This is the third Mahler 8th Symphony recording to come my way in just a few months. Many and various Mahler caravans have produced other Eighths in the last few years. Several more cycles have started recently, adding to those in progress - and promising to spin off yet more Eighths! I have to ask myself if I'm becoming jaded in my appreciation of this huge and powerful piece of music. Without doubt, the only performance giving me the experience of a life-time was the very first one I heard, live in the concert hall. Although repeated hearings on record have revealed more detail and meaning, the sheer impact of Mahler's carefully contrived massed forces has never quite been repeated for me, however illustrious the conductor and performers, however advanced their recording technologies. Maybe this is a work that can only fully deliver its goods once, and that at a live performance.

I'm left with the impression that Mahler's Eighth in SA-CD forms a crowded and all-too-unvarying field. Conductors are all getting adept at wrangling the varied personnel, having also found how to wrangle the strenuous fusing of dissimilar items of Goethe's metaphysics into Mahler's gigantic structures. The main orchestras and their large choruses, together with the soloists, have probably done the symphony several times over in each event, so expensive and complex are its requirements. I suggest It would take leadership of a special quality to stir new Eighths into something special.

Two of the best orchestras from the provincial orchestras of Germany, Jonathon Nott's Bamberg Symphony and Marcus Stenz's Gürzenich Orchestra, Köln have been issuing their Mahler Cycles on SA-CD, and these are nearing conclusion. Comparing their Eighth Symphony recordings is very interesting. They both have roughly the same complement of musicians, with guest choruses joining their house choirs, and eight mostly German soloists with substantial opera and concert experience (no duplication). Both follow the current trend of needing only one disc for the symphony, with Nott taking 78:37 and Stenz 77:01.

Both conductors have been presenting their Mahler from the basis of allegiance to the scores rather than regurgitating embedded performance practices. Their approaches to the Mahler canon emphasises modernity rather than romanticism. It isn't surprising, therefore, that their overall performances are quite similar. It is, however, difficult to make direct section-by-section comparisons in this case because Stenz only has 3 entry points for Part One and 12 for Part Two, whereas Nott has 8 for Part 1 and 17 for Part 2. The entry points are often at different parts of the score. It is also worth noting that OEHMS' booklet has only a German translation of 'Veni Creator' and no translations for Goethe's Faust extract. Tudor, for Nott, has translations in French, German and English.

Nott has a possibly unique viewpoint for directing the Eighth, as he sang in its Boy's Chorus several times in his youth; no doubt such an insider's view of the symphony has been valuable. He launches the 'Veni Creator' with the fine Georg Jann organ from 1992/93 (which does have a Contrabaß 32' pedal register, for those who need to know such things). The organ plays distinctively and splendidly all through Part 1 and in the final bars of Part 2 - perhaps the best recorded organ part of all the Eighths I have heard, although OEHMS' organ is also prominent in Stenz's recording. Mahler's direction is "impetuoso" and Nott's choral entries are certainly that, a brilliantly joyful sound, celebrating the composer's own creativity. Despite this momentum, the choirs and soloists are rather soft-edged, which blurs their articulation. Moving on, Nott's highly rhythmic progression, aided by cutting-edge brass, culminates in the climactic 'Glory to the Lord' with great power. But listen to Stenz at this point; with his stronger, deeper and more articulate basses and cellos, stunningly sharp attack from his choirs and epic brass, coming to a blazing finish which has one on the edge of one's seat. Impressive though Nott's Part One is, it is definitely less exciting than Stenz's forces with their unique level of spontaneous commitment. Part of this musical commitment probably comes from the sense of a joyful Festival, during which the live recordings took place.

Nott progresses through the complexities of Part 2 with the thoughtfulness and depth we expect from his other outstanding Symphony renderings, such as the Seventh and Ninth. But here and there, balances are a little awry; Doctor Marianus is almost drowned by Choir 1 at his first entrance, for example. The Windsbacker Knaben Choir are rather sweet voiced, but are lacking in tonal depth. But the build-up from 'Blicket auf' onwards is very well done, holding back so that tension accumulates, to be released at the miraculous Chorus Mysticus intoning "Everything is perishable". This begins ppp and "with one breath" as instructed by Mahler. A pivotal moment in Mahler's drama, it needs to be sung with a truly ravishingly toned sotto voce, but Nott's choirs only manage a mezzo-piano, sadly so, since Nott is usually scrupulous about dynamics.

The Bamberger's final peroration is done with great majesty, somewhat slower than usual, the orchestra and extra brass fulsome and expressive. But turn once more to Stenz for the final sections, and again his crisp ensemble and totally committed singers and players produce a blazing, electric conclusion. Stenz's Eighth is aided by the Philharmonie's amphitheatre-like architecture and the placing of the musicians. Tiers of chorus members extend into the sides of the listening room, although the overall focus is frontal. The listener in MC feels truly involved and immersed, while the Nott recording is a good sonic picture of a standard concert hall.

A helpful photograph of one of the performances in the Bamberger's large and opulent Konzerthall shows the arrangement of the musicians from the audience's point of view. The recording is effectively more distant than that of the splendid sonics for the "ordinary" symphonies in the Nott Mahler cycle, and the Eight's extra reverberation, especially in MC mode, contributes to the tendency of the vocals to have a soft edge. It also generalises the lower frequencies, for example when the basses and cellos are running about well below the choirs at the beginning of Part 1 - very clearly etched in Stenze's orchestra. However, the Bamberger's timps, bass drum and tamtam are very well presented. As a side remark, this and all of the Tudor Mahler recordings state that a 5.1 MC was used, yet on every disc in their series my Oppo player and Denon reciever report 5.0. With the Stenz OEHMS discs, which are also marked as 5.1, the LFE shows as active.

Summarizing, this is a finely considered and generally very well performed Eighth, with its orchestral contribution quite excellent, but overall, perhaps lacks the necessary amount of fire in its belly. Since the recording dates span 21/07-27/07, 2010 I assume it was put together from live performances, as was the OEHMS disc. Kudos to the Bamburg audience's effective silence! For a brief moment at the start of Stenze's disc, one can hear the ambient noise of an expectant audience - perhaps this relates the wonderful energy of its performance.

Despite a soft edge on its vocals, Nott's perhaps more sober and overtly spiritual rendering of the Eighth Symphony is well worth hearing. Adherents of the Nott cycle will certainly want to acquire it. However, I doubt if it will suffice as a collection's only Eighth Symphony, in view of the growing number of competitive versions. Certainly the Tudor disc is very well presented, with its darkly glowing Egon Schiele painting on the cover and a well laid-out booklet in three languages. The choice is yours.

Copyright © 2013 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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