Mahler Symphony No 8 BIS

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E flat (1906) 
Mater Peccatrix / Mater Gloriosa – Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Una poenitentium – Jacquelyn Wagner (soprano)
Mulier Samaritana – Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano)
Maria Aegyptiaca – Jess Dandy (contralto)
Doctor Marianus – Barry Banks (tenor)
Pater Ecstaticus – Julian Orlishausen baritone)
Pater Profundus – Christian Immler (bass)
Minnesota Chorale; National Lutheran Choir; Minnesota Boychoir; Angelica Cantanti Youth Choir
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. 2022, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, USA
Texts & English translations included
BIS BIS-2496 SACD [83] 

This is the penultimate instalment in Osmo Vänskä’s Mahler symphony cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra. It was recorded partly at public concerts between 10 and 12 June 2022, followed by studio sessions over the next few days. The concerts in question were Vänskä’s last as the orchestra’s music director, a post he had held since 2003; he is now their conductor laureate.

I’ve either reviewed or purchased all the previous instalments in Vänskä’s cycle. Whilst I’ve not been wholly convinced about certain things, I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve heard. One consistent point of excellence has been the quality of the BIS sound and that remains the case with the way they handle the engineering challenges posed by the Eighth. That said, some listeners may feel, as I did at first, that the choirs are placed a little too much behind the orchestra. It’s definitely the case that on Klaus Tennstedt’s extraordinary 1991 live account (review) the choral contribution has much greater impact, especially in Part I. BIS, though, are known for their sonic fidelity and since this is a live recording I quickly came to the conclusion that domestic listeners are experiencing as faithful a representation as is possible of what the audiences in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis will have heard; in other words, the choirs are realistically balanced against the orchestra. It should also be recorded that Covid restrictions, in places at the time of the performances, meant that the choir members were singing while wearing masks. As an amateur singer myself, I can imagine how constraining that must have been. I suspect, too, that Vänskä may have had a somewhat smaller chorus at his disposal (judging by the picture of the performance) than Tennstedt, who had the combined forces of the London Philharmonic Choir and London Symphony Chorus – as well as the Eton College Boys’ Choir. While on the subject of the recording, the aforementioned photograph shows clearly that the soloists were positioned at the front of the stage; that’s how they come across on disc. It’s relevant to mention that because Tennstedt’s soloists also register clearly but we know from the film of the performance that they were not positioned at the front of the stage. The BIS recording allows us, as usual, to enjoy copious amounts of orchestral detail; consequently, one can admire the splendid playing of the Minnesota Orchestra.  I wish the organ had come across more potently – it doesn’t match the throaty power of the Royal Festival Hall organ in the Tennstedt performance, but I suspect this is down to the instrument itself rather than any fault of the BIS engineers. 

As for the performance, Vänskä’s approach to Part I is uncommonly urgent. He launches ‘Veni creator spiritus’ excitingly and at a fast pace. The soloists make a good initial impression at ‘Imple superna gratia’. Rightly, Vänskä broadens the tempo a little at ‘Infirma nostri corporis’ but even then, one has the distinct sense that momentum is maintained. The episode that begins at ‘Accende’ sees the urgency resumed though I’m not sure I get quite the sense of a headlong tumult that is conveyed either by Tennstedt’s live performance or in Solti’s famous studio account (review); however, on its own terms Vänskä’s reading is pretty impressive. The boys’ choir makes a confident contribution in this section and, in fact, this is a good point at which to say that these young singers do a fine job throughout. The concluding pages (‘Gloria Patri’) are exultant; hereabouts, Vänskä’s two soprano soloists are fearless in the face of Mahler’s demands. I scribbled in my notes “Part I seems to flash by”. I must not give the impression that Vänskä rushes the music off its feet but this is a reading which majors in impetus and swift exultation. In his Festival Hall performance Klaus Tennstedt, who is at his inspirational best, is often excitingly urgent in his pacing but, more than Vänskä does, he isn’t afraid to pull the music back at moments of grandeur. Out of interest, I looked at the overall timings: these aren’t the full story by any means but can give one a flavour. Vänskä takes just 22:59 over Part I whereas Tennstedt takes 26:19 (fascinatingly. in Tennstedt’s earlier EMI recording, made under studio conditions and without the stimulus of an audience, he takes 24:40 over Part I (review)). Just a bit of additional context: Solti’s studio performance occupies 23:15, a similar timing to the Vänskä.

The contribution to Part I of the Minnesota Orchestra has been first rate. The long orchestral prelude to Part II puts them even more firmly in the spotlight. The opening Poco adagio is very well done indeed: Vänskä and his players successfully combine precision and the creation of atmosphere. A little later, at the Più mosso the Minnesota strings play with great ardour. The first passage that involves the chorus – or, at least, the tenors and basses – is very precise; this strange, otherworldly music comes off very well. Julian Orlishausen sings the Pater Ecstaticus very well; his voice is admirably focussed. I wonder, though, if the start of the episode should not have just a bit more urgency – as we hear with Solti, for instance. Christian Immler is a commanding Pater Profundus; he and Vänskä convey a fine sense of drama in this episode. In the section that follows, the choral singing by the ladies and children, as various categories of Angels and the Blessed Boys, is fresh, light and eager. I also appreciated the well-focused singing of Jacquelyn Wagner as Una poenitentium (Gretchen).  

Barry Banks is the tenor singing, in Part II, the part of Doctor Marianus. At his first entry (‘Hier ist die Aussicht frei’) I really had to strain to hear him but he soon comes fully into focus. ‘Höchste Herrscherin der Welt’ is a cruelly taxing solo. Initially, Banks seems under a degree of pressure, I think, but he sounds more comfortable later on and he sings ‘Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinn’ expressively. I like the way Vänskä delivers the lovely, quiet episode for strings, harp and harmonium. He doesn’t over-do things and as a result the music, tenderly played by the orchestra, is very lovely. The section involving the four female soloists is a conspicuous success. Vänskä conducts with a light touch, obtaining excellent playing and pacing the music expertly. Carolyn Sampson, Sasha Cooke and Jess Dandy all sing beautifully and between them their characters sound as if they’re supplying support and encouragement to the equally impressive Jacquelyn Wagner as Gretchen.

Uniquely in my experience, Vänskä doesn’t have an additional soprano to sing the short but critically important role of Mater Gloriosa; instead, Carolyn Sampson does the honours. She was engaged to sing that part; however, as a producer’s note in the booklet explains, she ended up doing far more than that. A colleague who was to have sung the much bigger role of Soprano I/Mater Peccatrix contracted Covid two days before the first concert. Apparently, Carolyn Sampson sight-read the role at the dress rehearsal and then took it on for the performances and studio sessions. That’s a role which, ordinarily, must have lain outside her fachChapeau to her for taking up the challenge so successfully.   Her pure, clear voice is ideal for the Mater Gloriosa music. I imagine she moved to a position at the rear of the stage for this solo because her voice is ideally distanced. I have to say that I’m not wholly convinced by Barry Banks’ delivery of ‘Blicket auf’; some of his vowel sounds seem very odd to me, but his singing is ardent. The choral development of ‘Blicket auf’ is really well done and then the orchestral transition to the Chorus Mysticus is magically done.  The hushed choral entry at ‘Alles Vergängliche’ is well-nigh ideal; the singers are beautifully hushed yet just distinct enough. From there, the final ensemble builds thrillingly – the two soprano soloists are glorious. In the concluding orchestral peroration, you may feel, as I do, that Vänskä presses forward just a bit too much; a little more breadth and grandeur would not have come amiss. Nonetheless, I bet that at the concerts on which this recording is based the end brought the house down.  All in all, despite one or two reservations, I think this account of Part II is very successful.

So, Osmo Vänskä has scaled the peak that is the Eighth symphony. For me, it’s not quite a library recommendation – it doesn’t have me on the edge of my seat in the way that Solti and Tennstedt (his live recording) do but there’s a lot going for it. I’m sure that collectors who have been following the cycle won’t feel disappointed in any way. It’s also a fitting climax to the conductor’s long tenure leading the Minnesota Orchestra. There remains the small matter of the Third symphony, which BIS will be issuing in the near future, I presume. So far as I’m aware, Das Lied von der Erdewon’t be part of the cycle – though I hope I’m wrong. Vänskä has already recorded the work for BIS (BISCD681) but that was quite a while ago – in the days when BIS were still issuing CDs. Furthermore, the recording used the Schoenberg/Riehn chamber orchestra version rather than Mahler’s full orchestral score.

It only remains to say that BIS’s documentation is up to their usual high standard, including a very good essay about the symphony by Jeremy Barham.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Ralph Moore (January 2024) ~ Jim Westhead (February 2024)

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