Monday, November 13, 2017

Utah Symphony Returns to Mahler Eighth


Gustav Mahler’s eighth symphony in E-flat major, frequently called the “Symphony of a Thousand,” is as much of a challenge to recording technology as it is to even the most attentive of Mahler listeners. The symphony consists of only two parts, whose proportions differ radically. The first is a setting of the ninth-century Christian Hymn for Pentecost, “Veni creator spiritus” (come, creator spirit). The second is based on the closing scene from the second part of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. The duration of the second part is roughly three times the length of the first, meaning that listening to the symphony requires the sort of endurance that one brings to attending an opera by Richard Wagner. However, the symphony also shows Mahler’s approach to architecture at its most sophisticated, since the second part unfolds as a series of prolongations of the episodes of the first. The first part, in turn, does not simply “walk its way” through the text but, instead, circles back to repeat certain passages in what may best be taken as a rhetoric of ecstasy.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that the performance of this symphony requires a thousand players, it certainly needs a very large ensemble. The dynamic range of the score is so wide that Mahler incorporates both a harmonium and a mandolin when the ensemble is not going full blast. Vocal resources require eight soloists, three sopranos, two altos, tenor, baritone, and bass, as well as two four-part choirs and a children’s choir. In some physical settings one might wonder if any room was left over for the audience.

This site has frequently discussed the many ways in which even the best recording technology cannot hope to capture many of the subtle nuances of a performance experience. In the Mahler eighth those nuances are often present, even when they are sharply contrasted by massive blocks of full-ensemble sonorities. In spite of these physical shortcomings, the first released recording was taken from a performance on April 9, 1950 with Leopold Stokowski conducting the New York Philharmonic, presumably in Carnegie Hall. A series of concert recordings then followed, one of which remains my personal favorite, the March 20, 1959 performance given by Jascha Horenstein and the London Symphony Orchestra.

It was only in December of 1963 that the symphony was given its first recording under studio conditions. The record company was Vanguard, and the ensemble was the Utah Symphony conducted by Maurice Abravanel. Back in the days of vinyl, this was pretty much the way to get some sense of the experience of listening to this mammoth undertaking.

This Friday Reference Recordings will release a new album of the Utah Symphony performing the Mahler eighth. This time the conductor is Thierry Fischer, who has been Music Director since 2009. In the interest of pulling out all the stops, so to speak, the choral resources were provided by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. As may be expected, this album is currently available for pre-order from

Whenever I think about the Mahler eighth, I am reminded of a Japanese proverb about there being two kinds of fools in the world: those who have never climbed Mount Fuji and those who have climbed Mount Fuji twice. I offer this as context for my own experiences with listening to both recordings and performances of the symphony. Readers may exercise their own judgement as to the impact of those experiences on my credibility.

Back when I was still collecting vinyl, I had the Abravanel recording. Initially I did not listen to it very much. However, as I gradually eased my way into the symphony’s second part, I began to become more comfortable with listening to the first part. I never got the CD version of that recording; and I was only motivated to get any CD recording of the symphony after I heard the Horenstein performance on the radio. Once I started writing for, I began to accumulate a variety of different collections of Mahler performances; and I now have recordings of the symphony conducted by Klaus Tennstedt, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Georg Solti, and Simon Rattle. A dreadful performance by Leonard Bernstein broadcast on Public Television weaned me away from any desire to own any video recording. However, after my move to the Bay Area in 1995, I have been fortunate enough to attend performances by Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony on two different season subscriptions. These have been my only concert experiences.

The penultimate sentence of that last paragraph is the critical one in establishing my mindset. The Mahler eighth is one of those pieces that has convinced me that no recording can ever serve as an adequate replacement for attending a performance. The best the recording can do is familiarize you with the “building blocks” of a composition, primarily pertaining to thematic material, harmonic progressions, and instrumentation. As a result, given my own personal experience, I doubt that I shall ever encounter a recording of this symphony that will expand my “knowledge base” of the piece. So much is now packed into my cerebral cortex that only physical presence at a performance is likely to have an impact.

When I set that “knowledge base” aside, however, I have to wonder whether Fischer has anything to offer listeners with less experience of the score. I’m not sure I can give a fair response, which is why I outlined my past experiences. In my own context I have to say that I have yet to encounter a recording that seizes my attention the way the Horenstein recording did on “first contact.” I am very glad that Fischer provided the music-loving citizens of Salt Lake City with exposure to this symphony in performance; but, even though the recording was made over the course of two concerts in February of 2016, I have to wonder if this album will have much to offer to any listeners other than those who attended one of those concerts and want their memories revived.

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