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Mahler: Symphony No. 8 - Nagano

Mahler: Symphony No. 8 - Nagano

Harmonia Mundi  HMC 801858/59 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Mahler: Symphony No. 8 in E flat "Symphony of a Thousand"

Sylvia Greenberg (soprano)
Lynne Dawson (soprano)
Sally Matthews (soprano)
Elena Manistina (alto)
Detlef Roth (baritone)
Jan-Hendrik Rootering (bass)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Kent Nagano (conductor)


Misleadingly nicknamed 'Symphony of a Thousand' because its Munich premiere on 12 September 1910 featured no fewer than 1004 performers, the eighth symphonic work of Gustav Mahler is NOT, as is often thought, the final 'monstrous excrescence' of post-Romanticism. Initially a modern 'ode to joy' (the Veni creator revisited), then a secular Mass (the final scene of Goethe's Faust II), turning obsessively around the key of E flat major, the Eighth Symphony stands out for its modernity of style: polyphony that is at once dense and transparent, an extraordinarily rich orchestral texture, contrapuntal and harmonic boldness concealed under ceremonial solemnity. Kent Nagano invites us to rediscover this unique and ultimately revolutionary work through its . . . thousand teeming details!

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Review by Graham Williams - June 26, 2006

At 88 minutes this is certainly not one of the swifter versions of this symphony. Solti (79.56m), Rattle (78m), Inbal (77.55m) are more representative of the norm. Total timings, however, should not be used to judge the quality of this excellent performance which never seems slow thanks to the assured way Nagano paces the music from its joyous start to sublime end.

The opening of Part 1 with choir, organ and orchestra in full cry, immediately establishes the superb quality of the recording made in the Philharmonie Berlin. As there is no audience present, this sometimes-problematic acoustic is shown to its best advantage and throughout there is a sense of space and air around the performers. The soloists, orchestra and choir are beautifully terraced within the sound stage while the massive dynamic range is captured by the engineers with no sense of strain, even in the loudest climaxes. The weighty organ pedal notes are cleanly reproduced, adding to the recording’s sense of scale.

The soloists, as in most other recordings, are of a somewhat variable quality. Sylvia Greenberg sounds rather tentative and lacking in power in Part 1, not a match for either Heather Harper (Solti) or Christine Brewer (Rattle), while Robert Gambill does at times force his attractive voice too much and sounds effortful, particularly as Doctor Marianus in the second part of the work.

Part 2, a setting of the final scene of Goethe’s Faust, begins with a long orchestral introduction. Here Nagano’s fastidious ear for detail and control of dynamics is most impressive, although I could have done without his vocal exhortations from 4.56 and in a couple of other places later on. His attention to Mahler’s tempo markings is exemplary. To give one example, Mahler marks the orchestral passage before ‘Dir, der Unberührbaren’ [track 8], Adagissimo, and this is exactly the way Nagano conducts it to absolutely ravishing effect. Some of the best singing in Part 2 comes from Sophie Koch and the veteran Jan-Hendrik Rootering, but in general all the soloists are impressive here.

The contribution of the three choirs is magnificent throughout the whole symphony, with accurate full-bodied singing and clear diction. The vindication of Nagano’s spacious interpretation is illustrated in the moving final Chorus Mysticus ‘Alles vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis’ which here makes an unforgettable impact.

The quality of the surround sound is outstanding with the rear channels used not only for adding ambience, but to reproduce the extra brass called for at the end of each part of the symphony, an effect not fully achievable in two-channel stereo.

On CD, Solti’s hyperactive version, with his almost unmatchable line-up of soloists, certainly still packs a punch, but the engineering now sounds somewhat artificial and contrived. Rattle is certainly exciting but drives the music too hard, and his disappointingly cramped recording does not do justice to the work’s sonic qualities.

The two SACDs are supplied in a slipcase with a lavish booklet that contains an excellent essay on the work, full texts and translations and some interesting photographs taken prior to the first performance in Munich.

This is a very recommendable purchase.

Copyright © 2006 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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Comment by Luukas - January 30, 2017 (1 of 2)

Oh my God! Without a doubt this is the best Mahler's Eight out here!

Let's start with the package. OK, it isn't perhaps a essential thing but the booklet includes some very interesting photos of Gustav Mahler (in rehearsal of the premiere, talking with Bruno Walter and so on). The discs arrived in a separate jewel case which was shaped like a book. How delightful!

Nagano's view of the score was surprisingly moderate (88'15"). This might be irritating for someone but one found many things to enjoy. For the sake of slow tempi Mahler's heavenly wide music world opened perfectly for the listener. The second part seemed to be an expansive secular oratorio with overwhelming, almost preternatural coda. Really impressive, to be honest.

The multi-channel recording - which was probably converted to DSD from the high-resolution PCM masters - does full justice to Mahler's wonderful score. There is fine concert hall presence with pleasant warmth. Happily the rear speakers reproduces the famous off-stage brass.

Exceedingly recommended, definitely.

Comment by Jan Arell - February 7, 2017 (2 of 2)

Well, the best? I'm very fond of Wit's recording on Naxos, a BR-A disc. I know some people don't like it because the recording uses the back channels a lot, not only for atmosphere. For sheer force and a huge number of players and choral singers, there's the Dudamel live recording on DG, DVD or BR.