Thierry Fischer’s Mind-Boggling Mahler Eighth

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MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E-flat, “Symphony of a Thousand” / Orla Boylan, Celena Shafer, Amy Owens, sop; Charlotte Hellekant, Tamara Mumford, mezzos; Barry Banks, ten; Markus Werba, bar; Jordan Bisch, bass; Mormon Tabernacle Choir; The Madeleine Choir School; Utah Symphony Orchestra; Thierry Fischer, cond / Reference Recordings FR-725 SACD

This is, without question, the most sheerly beautiful recording of the Mahler Eighth I’ve ever heard. and I’ve heard a bunch of them. Up until now, I would have given the nod for beauty to the 1980s recording conducted by Bernard Haitink, but comparing the two is like comparing luminescent 2-D color to a 3-D ViewMaster slide. Even without surround sound (and bear in mind that, since I review most recordings from downloads, I’m not even playing them on my good system speakers but on my computer’s Klipsch speakers), you feel totally immersed in the chorus and orchestra from the very first note.

In addition, all of the singers are quite good, although the only two names I recognized were that of tenor Barry Banks, who has sung at the Metropolitan Opera for many years, and mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford. This is not insignificant. The singers carry a goodly portion of the music, more so in the second half than the first, and Mahler wrote these vocal parts in “Italian opera style,” meaning very high up in their tessitura or average range. In short, the music calls not just for singers with good voices but singers who can literally “live” in their upper registers. Even very fine singers on past recordings failed the test. I’ve only heard four recordings of this work where the singers could hold their own properly: the old 1950 mono broadcast by Leopold Stokowski, the Rafael Kubelik and Michael Gielen recordings, and this one. I was particularly impressed by baritone Markus Werba’s rich, resonant voice. Banks gets by but is a tad brittle; the sopranos, so key to the ensemble blend, all have wonderful voices.

Whether due to Fischer’s conducting, the engineering of the recording or both, one also hears a great deal of orchestral detail, so essential in Mahler but not always achieved, particularly in this monster of a symphony. The participation of the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir almost guaranteed that the choral music would be performed to perfection from a technical standpoint, but Fischer literally outdid himself in pushing them to give more of themselves emotionally: listen, for instance, to the “Accende lumen sensibus” section in the first part. There is tremendous energy and dynamism here, so much so that I would not recommend putting this CD on for your Sunday “clah-ssical” brunch. You might blow your brunch guests out the windows.

Fischer also understands the importance of rhythmic drive, even in slow sections. His orchestra responds with playing so luminous and breathtaking that they literally compete with the Georg Solti-era Chicago Symphony. I heard that orchestra in person back in the 1980s, and folks, let me tell you, they were everything you heard on the records and then some. Every musician in every section plays their little hearts out in this performance. It’s almost mind-boggling.

In the subtler and, for some, more interesting second part of the symphony, Fischer delicately limns the music like a master painter. The luminous sound, then, is not just for the louder and more extroverted first part. Here, with the lone exception of Barry Banks, the solo singers don’t seem to be interpreting the words so much as just singing—gloriously, I admit, but just singing. A bit of a disappointment, but my only one in this stupendous performance. Fischer keeps the music moving at a good pace, however, and this is certainly no real cause for a negative review, just a fair warning that it’s a bit glib. I still find that the singers on the Kubelik performance, particularly tenor Donald Grobe and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, are tops in this respect.

I had one niggling complaint, though: since this entire performance runs only 79:41, why put it on two CDs? A CD isn’t like an LP; the music doesn’t sound better or more spacious if you give it more “groove room” on the disc. Yet I still find it excellent. It could easily be your only Mahler Eighth if you so choose, though I’d personally also recommend Kubelik and Gielen. It does, however, supersede the historic Stokowski version by a wide margin. This is the “surround sound” Eighth par excellence.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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