Symphony No. 8
The realities of union contracts and other mounting expenses have transformed the business of recording classical music over the last decade or so. Bargain labels such as Naxos, with lesser-known (but often quite excellent) artists and ensembles have fortunately taken up some of the slack, as well as covering a wider repertoire than the major labes and orchestras can afford to address. Recordings by major orchestras have become much rarer — especially "studio" recordings requiring costly special sessions. Several of the world's fine orchestras, including Chicago, Boston and San Francisco in the USA, are now issuing very well recorded live concert performances on their own labels. LSO Live began this practice about five years ago during the tenure of Sir Colin Davis, and it is good to see the series continuing under current Music Director Gergiev.
Others might feel differently, but for this listener the trend toward releasing live concert performances is a salutary one. Perhaps a small mistake somewhere in the ensemble may occasionally be captured — although very occasionally with orchestras of this caliber -- but gains in emotional intensity with a performance before a live audience more than make up for any slight imperfection.
That is especially true for a conductor like Gergiev, whose career initially came to prominence during his many years as Music Director of the Kirov Opera, Ballet and Orchestra in St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater. His artistic inclinations are theatrically dramatic to the core, and that orientation clearly drives these Mahler symphonies.
There is of course much competition in the "Resurrection" Symphony. Otto Klemperer's magnificent 1962 recording for EMI is one of that storied conductor's most profound interpretations, and has remained at the top of my list for decades. Recently it has been joined at the top by Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Chorus on the Channel Classics label, my pick for the finest recording of this symphony in the digital era. Both of those, as well as great interpretations from artists including Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas, bring deeper insights to this epic score. But Gergiev's theatrical flair creates a stirring, emotionally gripping musical narrative, a very human sense of struggle leading to ultimate redemption. I cannot recommend this as the only Mahler Second to have, but for any real fan of the composer it is an illuminating and compelling new take on this well traveled score.
The London Symphony Orchestra has always struck me as one of the world's most versatile great ensembles, seemingly able to take on the authentic stylistic garb of virtually any leader or repertoire before them. They sound idiomatically British with Benjamin Britten conducting his own English music; they emulate Eastern European warmth with IstvanKertesz leading Dvorak or Kodaly; and they capture the brash Americanism of Charles Ives under Michael Tilson Thomas. I recently saw them on tour with Gergiev in Chicago, sounding convincingly Russian in an all-Prokofiev program.
Both soloists here have lovely voices and sing well, although no other mezzo for me equals the profoundly spiritual reading of the “Urlicht” movement by the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson for Tilson Thomas. The LSO Chorus performs with urgency and a great sense of passion, and the orchestra demonstrates yet again its ability to take full measure of any composer's demands. Here they sound born to play Mahler.
Filling out this set is the Adagio movement from Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony, a beautiful piece but one that always saddens me that Mahler never completed the symphony. (Musicologist Deryk Cooke and others have scored "completed" versions working from Mahler's sketches, and that version is worth hearing — but still I wonder just how Mahler would have done it. Among the several recordings of this Adagio I have always admired the Szell/Cleveland. But now I am moved to award pride of place to this new reading, which has a dramatic fervor I had not previously heard in this music.
The Eighth Symphony is popularly known as the "Symphony of a Thousand" because of the huge performing forces required (I have not listed all of the soloists by name, although the performance level among them is laudable). It is for that reason not frequently performed in concert or recorded. I have been fortunate enough to hear it live twice, once many years ago under Sir Georg Solti in Chicago, and more recently with Tilson Thomas in San Francisco. I confess I have never found studio recordings of this score completely convincing, perhaps partially because the scale of performing forces has been so difficult to capture fully. Solti/Chicago on a Decca/London LP set actually works pretty well sonically to capture the conductor's rather militant vision of the work. But previous concert performances from Bernstein in Vienna and Tilson Thomas in San Francisco have captured more of the ecstatic spirituality of the piece.
Here again Gergiev seems to be marching to a different — and quicker-paced — drummer. I know no other performance with quite the urgency of this one. Listening to it, I imagine that this is what an opera by Mahler might sound like. As with the "Resurrection," the other performances cited above are all on the whole somewhat more idiomatic than this one. But in this case — and I know many Mahlerites may disagree -- the conductor's conception brings a new kind of dramatic urgency to a score that can sometimes come across as rather ponderous. At the least, here too I would suggest that the serious Mahler lover might well want to acquire this singular reading to learn new things about the Eighth Symphony.
The SACD sound on both of these releases is excellent, not quite up to Fischer's Mahler recordings on Channel Classics, but still qualifying for a five-note rating. The sense of the performing artists in a well-defined concert space is captured very well, and when cranked up the sound has great dynamic impact.