Mahler: Symphony No. 8 - Vänskä
Classical - Orchestral
Mahler: Symphony No. 8
Carolyn Sampson, Jacquelyn Wagner, Sarah Wegener (sopranos)
Sasha Cooke (mezzo)
Jess Dandy (contralto)
Barry Banks (tenor)
Julian Orlishausen (baritone)
Christian Immler (bass-baritone)
Angelica Cantanti Youth Choirs: Children's Choir
National Lutheran Choir
Omso Vänskä (conductor)
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Review by Graham Williams - December 19, 2023
Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra cap off their monumental endeavour to record all 10 Mahler Symphonies for BIS with a triumphant performance in this penultimate release. The project, initiated seven years ago with the composer’s Fifth Symphony, marks Vänskä's final act as the orchestra's music director after a remarkable 19-year tenure, transitioning to his new role as conductor laureate last year. Throughout his leadership, Vänskä has consistently cultivated a responsive orchestra, delivering superlative musicianship in sync. with his particular interpretive vision.
The distinctive two-movement structure of Mahler’s 8th Symphony is artfully navigated in this recording. Part 1, drawing from the medieval Whitsuntide hymn ‘Veni creator spiritus’,unfolds with visceral excitement under Vänskä's direction. From the commanding E flat chord on the organ and the incisive entry of the massed choirs, he steers his forces with clarity and absolute control throughout this movement to its blazing peroration.
In the extended second section, a setting of the final scene of Goethe’s Faust Part II, Vänskä adopts a less frenetic pace while still maintaining a firm forward pulse. Unlike on some other recordings, the vocal ensemble assembled here leaves no room for disappointment. Carolyn Sampson who was engaged to sing Mater Gloriosa rescued the public performance and this recording by agreeing to sing not only her part but also that of Soprano 1 / Magna Peccatrix when the soloist originally booked for the part contracted Covid. Sampson sings radiantly and is complemented by the resplendent voice of soprano Jacquelyn Wagner and the luscious vocal quality of contralto Jess Dandy.
One of the pitfalls in Mahler's 8th Symphony is often the quality of the tenor portraying Doctor Marianus. Not a problem here for Barry Banks, a familiar presence in this work, who handles the role with bright and plangent tenor tones, displaying both sensitivity and musicality. Baritone Julian Orlishausen and bass-baritone Christian Immler contribute their solos with firmness and beauty of tone.
The BIS 5.0 multi-channel recording is simply awesome. Producer Robert Suff (a long time collaborator with Osmo Vänskä) and engineer Thore Brinkmann have achieved the almost impossible task of successfully balancing the huge orchestral forces, organ, two mixed choirs, boys choir and seven soloists that allows the full magisterial grandeur and thrusting dynamism of Vänskä’s performance in Part 1 and the closing section of Part 2 to be captured with stunning realism. In the more reflective sections in Part 2 the enunciation of the texts from both soloists and choirs has remarkable clarity. It is also worth mentioning that an extra thrill is in store for those listening on a surround sound system as Mahler’s extra brass emerge with stunning impact from the rear speakers in the closing bars of both Parts.
In every aspect, this is an impressive achievement, whetting the appetite for the project's completion with the release of the Third Symphony in the spring of 2024.
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