INKPOT#77 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MAHLER Symphony No.8. Various/Chicago SO/Solti (Decca)

GUSTAV MAHLER (1860-1911)

Symphony No.8 in E-flat
“Symphony of a Thousand” Soprano I Heather Harper Magna peccatrix
Soprano II Lucia Popp Mater gloriosa
Soprano III Arleen Auger Una Poenitentum
Contralto I Yvonne Minton Mulier Samaritana
Contralto II Helen Watts Maria Aegyptiaca
Tenor Ren Kollo Doctor Marianus
Baritone John Shirley-Quirk Pater ecstaticus
Bass Martti Talvela Pater profundusVienna Boys’ Choir Vienna State Opera Chorus Vienna Singverein
Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti

Includes full texts with English translations

DECCA 448 293-2
[79’34”] full-price (single disc)

by Derek Lim

It was this particular recording with which I made my first acquaintance with Mahler’s Eighth. It had great singing, and seemed very exciting at the time, yet when I lost it (a long story) I made no real attempt to try to regain it. Nearly a year later, I was loaned this recording by my Editor [and he had only just bought it 2 hours ago! – Ed.], and I eagerly re-listened afresh to the late Solti’s interpretation, which I had heard so many things about in the meantime.

As a whole interpretation it has not worn on my nostalgia so well. The first movement, while driven in the way Solti (left) so often can, is well sung in every aspect, but it is also the worse interpretation of the two movements. It suffers from a real lack of direction, and often I thought to myself that the conductor seems lost in the course of the music, not reining the score in, but rather letting it “play”.

Overall I found Solti’s constant “pushing” of the music a little wearying, and his lack of patience a pity – he just doesn’t want to slow down, even in the passages which need that. His intermediate passages in particular don’t come off so well from such an approach; though some may like it this way, I don’t. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra can be surprisingly restrained for this piece; the brass section remains very prominent and bright, though.

Solti’s interpretation of the second movement starts on the medium-slow side. Here his reading is less on the spiritual side but more on the opera-prelude side. The choir proves its worth in this movement, where its crisp pronunciation and attack works very well indeed, working up to the entrance of the Pater Ecstaticus, who is very good indeed, and he is abetted by the very good bass solo later. Lest one be fooled into thinking that this is a ‘live’ performance, Decca engineers have left a strange break in the recording, at Jene Rosen (with the lighter women’s voice), which can be distracting.

Back to the soloists, Ren Kollo’s solo as Doctor Marianus is very well-done, if not perfect, but already quite a rare achievement indeed. Lucia Popp, one of my favourite sopranos is positively beautiful as Una Penitentum at “Neige, neige”, and very very lovely. Arleen Auger sings beautifully, though it is strange to hear the Mater Gloriosa less beautiful than Gretchen.

So why was I constantly more than a little irritated? Solti, I’m afraid. He seems to be rushing headlong always, with more rest, more peacefulness and less turbulence necessary at many points. He displays a lack of patience in the choral passages; here excitement should be tempered with an equal amount to holding in the reins. Despite all the faults, I found the point after Gretchen/Una Penitentum enters into the coda very impressive, with Solti showing what he can really do here, which is more the pity about the rest of the Symphony. All the same, I find Horenstein’s approach to the coda – at once supple and in complete control – more gratifying and astonishing, showing the totally confident Gustav Mahler stepping forth (Horenstein’s recording is reviewed here).

I find this disc well-recorded, and well-engineered, certainly better than the famous Tennstedt on EMI (CDS7 477625-2), which has won awards for its engineering (I find this recording not clear enough in its presentation of the choir, orchestra, and the soloists are too far back). The Solti is a good demonstration disc, really, and fantastic if you want to hear all these singers together, in one disc, without resorting to “opera-highlights”. I jest of course – Solti’s extroverted driven approach, though missing a lot of detail, may just appeal to you; his coda is totally convincing though his first movement is not, yet, for a ‘live’ performance, and a once-in-a-life-time one at that, why not save up and get the Horenstein?

In Singapore, this disc is available at or can be ordered from Borders (Wheelock Place), Tower (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City), Sing Discs (Raffles City) or HMV (The Heeren).

Derek Lim would die to play or sing in the Eighth.

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