mahler sy8 dorati society

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E flat major (1906)
Taru Valjakka (soprano I) – Magna Peccatrix; Hanneke van Bork (soprano II) – Mater Gloriosa; Kari Lövaas (soprano III) – Una Poenitentium; Edith Thallaug (alto I) – Mulier Samaritana; Kerstin Meyer (alto II) – Maria Aegyptiaca; Allen Cathcart (tenor) – Doctor Marianus; Knut Skram (baritone) – Pater Ecstaticus; Simon Estes (bass) – Pater Profundus
Musikaliska Sällskapet; Akademiska Kören; Uppsala Akademiska Kammarkör; Musikklassernas Gosskör
Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Antal Doráti
rec. live, 26 January 1973, Konserthuset, Stockholm
Antal Doráti Society ADL319 [76]

One of the more delightful outcomes I experienced after finishing and having my Conspectus of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony published here on MusicWeb International, was the kindness of individuals who wrote in pointing out the (mercifully few) errors within the text. Indeed, when Richard Chlupaty of the Antal Doráti Centenary Society messaged to point out I was wrong when I wrote in my introduction to Doráti’s recording of the Seventh Symphony: “It may be a surprise to some people to learn just how much Antal Doráti championed Mahler during his lifetime, especially since he left such a large discography of recordings, none of which contained any Mahler. However, there exists live tapings of nearly all of the symphonies (except numbers Three and Eight)…”. In fact, not only did Doráti perform the Eighth Symphony during his lifetime, but there existed a live taping of one of the concerts and so, to prove his point, Mr Chlupaty even sent me a copy of the recording of the Eighth Symphony under review here. Not only that but, as the author of both a biography and discography on Doráti, he also offered this possible explanation as to why this conductor made no commercial recordings of the composer:

“I guess the reason Doráti did not record any studio recordings of Mahler is that he may have thought there were already excellent studio recordings by other top conductors available (e.g. Bernstein, Haitink, Horenstein, etc) and that his contribution would be redundant; he may also have been aware that the musical public did not rate him as a Mahler conductor, although, of course, this attitude has changed; in fact, all our AD Mahler recordings have proved best-sellers with Doráti admirers”. What I can add to this is that all the live Mahler recordings under Doráti’s baton contain orchestral playing of an astonishingly high level of excellence, even if it is with the First Symphony from as long ago as 1951 with the Residence Orchestra of The Hague (see review), to the massive forces involved in this performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, where little allowance needs to be made for a one-off live performance.

Indeed, it is sometimes easy to forget just how rare a performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony would have been in the not-so-long-ago-time of 1973, when the only commercial recordings available would have been classic tapings by Bernstein (1966), Solti (1971) and Wyn Morris (1972), along with less satisfactory ones by Abravanel (1963), Kubelík (1970) and Haitink (1971) and so let me declare at the outset that this live recording by Doráti belongs very much in the former group, with a genuine and palpable sense of occasion that every recording and performance of this work needs for it to succeed (to be fair to Kubelík and Haitink they too achieved similar qualities in concert).

As for the interpretation, Doráti is closer to Solti than to Bernstein, plotting an even, but fiery course through Part I with no slowing down for the recapitulation that Bernstein and Tennstedt do so memorably where they create the impression of a huge musical tsunami which then comes crashing down when all the choirs gloriously proclaim in unison ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ once more. If Doráti cannot quite match those two Mahlerian titans, he is a match for many others and brings the movement home to an exciting close.

He also paces Part II in an exemplary fashion. It is at this point in the score that the listener gets to hear the soloists properly for the first time and Doráti has at his disposal a very fine team. If the line-ups for the contemporary studio accounts already mentioned appear at first sight to be star-studded in comparison, then this concert’s Maria Aegyptiaca, the mezzo-soprano Kerstin Meyer, most certainly had a fine international career, singing with Karajan at the Vienna State Opera as well as being the soloist in Mahler’s Third Symphony in the performance conducted by John Barbirolli with the Halle Orchestra (available on BBC Legends), amongst other highlights. The Pater Ecstaticus of Knut Skram was also good enough to sing the role of Figaro at Glyndebourne in 1973 with Te Kanawa, Cotrubas and von Stade under the baton of Sir John Pritchard (available on DVD from Arthaus Musik), even if he had to ‘anglicise’ his name there to the slightly less dangerous sounding Kurt Skram. The Pater Profundus sung by the young Simon Estes, is instantly recognisable to the vocal connoisseur of today, who will also note that Allen Cathcart continues the long and distinguished tradition of struggling with his role as Dr Estaticus, a part that is rarely done well, plus Hanneke van Bork audibly tires during the penitent women section near the end of the whole performance. That said, all is forgiven as Doráti directs proceedings towards the final Chorus Mysticus and then on to the closing pages that are as moving and exultant as any. 

The sound, taken from a Swedish Radio broadcast, is nicely balanced in full, rich stereo, with the organ and bass drum both nicely captured, discreet and not overwhelming, with a generous sixteen track points. Presentation is decent for a production that is ultimately a labour of love and contains full details of the performance but nothing about Mahler, the symphony, or texts and translations – but then I feel this is the correct way to proceed, since this is clearly a release for the specialist collector rather than one for someone getting acquainted with Mahler’s music for the first time.

In the end, if Doráti is unable to quite match the dynamism of Solti or the charisma of Bernstein in this music in their contemporaneous studio accounts, then that is only because few others do so, either. However, Doráti live in Stockholm is still light-years ahead of recent young-guns, such as Yannick Nézét-Séguin’s disappointingly earthbound 2016 account from Philadelphia for Deutsche Grammophon (see review) and therefore much credit and respect needs to be given for his achievement here which, all in all, is a most important entry to both Antal Doráti’s discography, as well as that of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.

Lee Denham

AvailabilityThe Antal Doráti Centenary Society