Mahler: Symphony No.8 — Riccardo Chailly / LFO


2017-08-07 — Original posting


Received for Review:

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.8 in E flat major

Riccardo Chailly / Lucerne Festival Orchestra

Opening Concerts, Lucerne Festival 2016


Introduction

In the last years of his life, Claudio Abbado (1933 – 2014) pursued his project of performing all of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. He died before he could complete the project with Mahler’s Symphony No.8, his “summum opus“, the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand”. Abbado’s successor as music director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra is Riccardo Chailly (*1953). Chailly wanted to complete Abbado’s Mahler project: he performed the Symphony No.8 in E flat major by Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) in the two (successive) opening concerts of the Lucerne Festival 2016, on 2016-08-12/13. These performances are now available in a live recording, on Blu-ray Disk (BD). Let me complement this introduction with text from the Back of the BD:

Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony breaks the boundaries of the symphonic form in a world-embracing gesture. Riccardo Chailly is one of the staunchest performers of this work, and therefore it seemed appropriate in many ways that he chose this work for his inaugural concert as Claudio Abbado’s successor and new music director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The artistic statement was combined with a deeply personal conviction: it should be a “tribute to Claudio,” the highly esteemed friend and colleague to whom Chailly, as he emphasizes, owes very much. On 12 August 2016, Claudio Abbado’s unfinished Mahler cycle with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra was completed in a breathtaking performance of the Mahler 8th, simultaneously heralding in a new era in Lucerne.


The Recording

Mahler: Symphony No.8 — Riccardo Chailly / LFO (BD Cover)Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.8 in E flat major
live recording 2016-08-12/13 @ KKL Lucerne
Opening Concert, Lucerne Festival 2016

Riccardo Chailly / Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Ricarda Merbeth, Juliane Banse, Anna Lucia Richter, Sara Mingardo,
Mihoko Fujimura, Andreas Schager, Peter Mattei, Samuel Youn
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Latvian Radio Choir, Orfeón Donostiarra, Tölzer Knabenchor

accentus music ACC10390 (Blu-ray Disk 16:9 NTSC / DTS HD, stereo); © 2017
Booklet: 30 pp. de/en/fr
Mahler: Symphony No.8 — Riccardo Chailly / LFO (BD, EAN-13 barcode)
—Find Blu-ray disk on amazon.com—


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The information on the back of the BD casing is also available via accentus.com — here’s a PDF version of the relevant page.


The Composition

Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) wrote his “summum opus” (that’s what he called it himself), the Symphony No.8 in E flat major, in Maiernigg, his summer retreat in Maria Wörth at the Wörthersee in Austria, in summer 1906. The premiere on 1910-09-12 in Vienna turned into Mahler’s biggest triumph ever. It’s the last of Mahler’s works that premiered during the composer’s lifetime.

After a set of purely instrumental symphonies, the Symphony No.8 goes way beyond the vocal aspects of the early “Wunderhorn” symphonies. Mahler also abandons the traditional movement structure: the symphony is large (typically around 80 minutes) and in just two parts, and both parts involve soloists and choirs (two mixed choirs and a boys’ choir). Because of the large number of people playing and singing in this work (see below), the symphony got the surname “Symphony of a Thousand“:

Instrumentation

Even though there were (probably) never quite 1000 people involved in a performance, the instrumentation is huge:

  • Woodwinds (the first woodwind voices may need to be doubled)
    • piccolo (at least doubled)
    • 4 flutes (occasionally 5)
    • 4 oboes, cor anglais
    • clarinet in E flat (at least doubled); 3 clarinets in B flat, bass clarinet in B flat
    • 4 bassoons, contra-bassoon
  • Brass
    • 8 horns
    • 4 trumpets
    • 4 trombones
    • bass tuba
  • Remote brass
    • 4 trumpets
    • 3 trombones
  • Percussion
    • timpani (2 players)
    • big drum
    • cymbals
    • tamtam
    • triangle
    • deep bells
  • keyboard instruments
    • bells
    • celesta
    • piano
    • harmonium
    • organ
  • 2 harps (at least doubled)
  • mandolin (multiple)
  • strings (double basses with contra-C string)

Vocal Forces

  • 3 Sopranos (Magna PeccatrixUna poenitentiumMater gloriosa)
  • 2 Altos (Mulier SamaritanaMaria Aegyptiaca)
  • Tenor (Doctor Marianus)
  • Baritone (Pater ecstaticus)
  • Bass (Pater profundus)
  • Boys’ choir
  • Mixed choirs 1 & 2

With the vocal soloists, the role names (italics) refer to Part II with the final scene from Goethe’s “Faust II”:

Structure

Mahler’s Symphony No.8 in E flat major is in two sections, both include vocal parts. Part I uses the Latin text of a 9th-century Christian hymn for Pentecost, Veni creator spiritus (“Come, Creator Spirit”). It involves all three choirs, the full instrumentation, two sopranos, two altos, and the three male vocal soloists.

The basis for Part II is the closing scene, the final verses from Part II of the tragic play “Faust” (“Faust II”) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832). I won’t go into details here—Wikipedia has plenty of information on Mahler’s symphony. Here, an additional soprano is required, and all vocal soloists fill roles from Goethe’s play:

  • Magna Peccatrix (The Great Sinner, a sinful woman): Soprano I
  • Una poenitentium (A Penitent, formerly Gretchen): Soprano II
  • Mater Gloriosa (The Glorious Mother, the Virgin Mary): Soprano III
  • Mulier Samaritana (a Samaritan woman): Alto I
  • Maria Aegyptiaca (Mary of Egypt): Alto II
  • Doctor Marianus: Tenor
  • Pater ecstaticus: Baritone
  • Pater profundus: Bass

Further down, the “track listing” gives a more detailed outline of the structure of the symphony.


The Artists

As outlined at the top, the live recordings took place in the white hall of Lucerne’s KKL (Congress- and Culture Center Lucerne), on the occasion of the two opening concerts (2016-08-12 and 2016-08-13) of the Lucerne Festival 2016. Here are some notes on the artists:

Lucerne Festival Orchestra

It was Arturo Toscanini (1867 – 1957) who formed a festival orchestra in Lucerne for the first time in 1938, convening a set of virtuosos of the time into an elite ensemble. In August 2003, Festival Executive and Artistic Director Michael Haefliger (*1961) and Claudio Abbado (1933 – 2014) took this idea up again, founding the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Already at its creation, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra featured numerous, famous soloists and members of well-known chamber music formations—many were close or personal friends to Claudio Abbado. Most of those artists are still in the orchestra today.

Riccardo Chailly, Conductor

In 2016, Riccardo Chailly (*1953) succeeded Claudio Abbado at the head of the orchestra. He now is Music Director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Born in Milan, Chailly first studied composition with his father. He became assistant conductor to Claudio Abbado at La Scala di Milano at age 20, making his debut in 1978.

His career then took Chailly to the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (1982 – 1988), the London Philharmonic Orchestra (1983 – 1986), the Teatro Comunale of Bologna (1986 – 1993), the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (1988 – 2004), the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (2005- 2015), and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi (from 1999). Finally, starting 2015, Chailly returned to La Scala di Milano as principal conductor, and as of this year (2017), he is Music Director at La Scala.

Ricarda Merbeth, Soprano

The German soprano Ricarda Merbeth is Kammersängerin. She debuted at the Vienna State Opera in 1999 (Marzelline in Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio“) and was member of the ensemble in Vienna till 2005. Starting in 2005, she has performed (and is still performing) various roles in Bayreuth. Since 2006, she is freelancing, singing at many of the leading opera houses all over the world. She also appears in concert, with compositions from Wagner to Strauss, and she has given concerts with Lieder by Schubert, Strauss, Berg, etc.

Juliane Banse, Soprano

Juliane Banse (*1969) covers a wide soprano repertoire, from Bach to Mozart to Strauss, from Lied to oratorio to opera. She was born in Southern Germany, but grew up in Zurich. For additional information see also Wikipedia.

Anna Lucia Richter, Soprano

Anna Lucia Richter grew up in Cologne, studied in Cologne and Basel. Later, she attended master classes with several notable singers. Here repertoire covers Lied, oratorio, as well as opera.

Sara Mingardo, Alto

The Italian contralto Sara Mingardo (*1961) has been an active concert and opera singer since the 1980s.

Mihoko Fujimura, Alto

Mihoko Fujimura grew up in Japan, where she also received her first musical education. Later, she moved to Munich for further studies. There, she started an international career as opera and concert singer, with appearances all over Europe, and in North America.

Andreas Schager, Tenor

Andreas Schager is from Austria, focusing on the role of Heldentenor in opera, with occasional concert appearances, primarily in Western Europe.

Peter Mattei, Baritone

The baritone Peter Mattei (*1965) grew up in Sweden, where he still lives, while pursuing a career as opera singer, primarily in Europe.

Samuel Youn, Bass

The operatic bass-baritone Samuel Youn (*1971) is from South Korea. He studied in Seoul, Milan, and in Cologne, where he launched his career around 1999/2000, with appearances in Europe and in the U.S.

Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks

Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks (see also Wikipedia) is a mixed, professional choir, performing under the umbrella of the Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian broadcasting corporation). It was founded 1946. The core of the choir consists of 49 singers, but the ensemble can be expanded to up to 100 singers.

Latvian Radio Choir

Latvian Radio Choir (Latvijas Radio koris, see also Wikipedia) is a professional chamber choir, founded 1940, working for the Latvian Radio. The choir currently has 24 members.

Orfeón Donostiarra

Orfeón Donostiarra, founded 1897, is a concert choir based in San Sebastián, Basque Country, Spain. The choir covers a wide repertoire from a capella works form the 18th century up to contemporary music—it has performed under numerous, great conductors (see also Wikipedia). Based on photos of their Web site, the choir currently has around 90 members.

Tölzer Knabenchor

The Tölzer Knabenchor (see also Wikipedia) is one of the leading boys’ choirs in Europe. It was founded 1956 in Bad Tölz (Bavaria). Since 1970 it is based in Munich. The choir is still led by its founder and musical director Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden (*1937). The concert formation (Konzertchor) consists of around 24 boys.

Symphony of a Thousand?

The photo below suggests around 220 singers, the booklet lists 127 instrumentalists in the orchestra, plus the 8 soloists, plus the conductor—overall, the performance featured about 350 active participants. There are certainly performances with more performing artists (though unlikely close to 1000). However, the number 1000, or the surname “Symphony of a Thousand” was not the composer’s suggestion. It just stands for the impression from the overwhelming number of people on the stage.


A “Track Listing”

In the list below, the “track numbering” follows the numbering in the booklet (see the bottom of this posting). The “track times” are taken from the booklet. The starting times (mm’ss”) were read from the player software (following the tempo annotations). Differences between the starting times may deviate from the track durations in the booklet.

Only the main tempo annotations are shown—Mahler’s detailed score contains 2 – 3 times as many annotations. I have translated most of the German annotations. Note that the section numbering is not from the score, but merely for reference in the review part below. The scheme could be seen as a typical track structure in CD recordings, although, barely any two recordings use the same track division. Essentially, all divisions in the two parts are to be played attacca, i.e., without breaks.

Part I — “Veni, creator spiritus

  1. 2’09”: Hymnus “Veni, creator spiritus“: Allegro impetuoso (1’47”)
  2. 3’37”: “Imple superna gratia“: A tempo. Etwas (aber unmerklich) gemäßigter, immer sehr fliessend (4’27”)
    Somewhat (but unnoticeably) more moderate, always very fluent
  3. 7’35”: “Infirma nostri corporis“: Etwas drängend — Noch einmal so langsam, nicht schleppend (1’51”)
    Somewhat urging — Half the tempo, but don’t drag
  4. 9’55”: Tempo I (Allegro, etwas hastig) — Sehr fließend (1’15”)
    somewhat rushed — very fluent
  5. 11’22”: “Infirma nostri corporis“: Noch einmal so langsam als vorher. Nicht schleppend (3’11”)
  6. 14’04”: Plötzlich sehr breit und leidenschaftlichen Ausdrucks — “Accende lumen sensibus”: Mit plötzlichem Aufschwung — “Tu septiformis munere” (4’52”)
    Suddenly very broad, and with passionate expression — With sudden upswing
  7. 19’15”: “Veni, creator spiritus” (4’27”)
  8. 23’21” – 26’10”: “Gloria sit Patri Domino”: Wieder frisch (2’56”)
    Fresh again

Part II — Goethe, “Faust II”

  1. 26’47”: (Heilige Anachoreten): Poco adagio (5’54”)
  2. 32’31”: Più mosso. Allegro moderato (3’18”)
  3. 35’50”: “Waldung, sie schwankt heran“: Wieder langsam (4’23”)
    Slow again
  4. 40’12”: “Ewiger Wonnebrand” (Pater Ecstaticus): Moderato (1’48”)
  5. 41’55”: “Wie Felsenabgrund mir zu Füßen” (Pater Profundus): Allegro (5’11”)
  6. 47’14”: “Gerettet ist das edle Glied der Geisterwelt vom Bösen” (Choir of the angels) — “Hände verschlinget euch” (Choir of blissful boys): Allegro deciso (1’06”)
  7. 48’11”: “Jene Rosen aus den Händen” (The younger angels): Molto leggiero (2’13”)
  8. 50’31”: “Uns bleibt ein Erdenrest” (The more accomplished angels): Schon etwas langsamer und immer noch mäßiger (1’56”)
    Already somewhat slower and always more moderate
  9. 52’27”: “Ich spür’ soeben, nebelnd um Felsenhöh” (The younger angels) — “Freudig empfangen wir” (Choir of blissful boys): Im Angang noch etwas gehalten (1’20”)
    Initially still somewhat retained
  10. 53’47”: “Höchste Herrscherin der Welt!” (Doctor Marianus): Sempre l’istesso tempo (5’23”)
  11. 57’53”: “Dir, der Unberührbaren” (Choir): Äußerst langsam. Adagissimo — “Du schwebst zu Höhen der ewigen Reiche” (Choir of the penitent women & Una poenitentium): Äußerst langsam (2’28”)
    Extremely slowly
  12. 61’37”: “Bei der Liebe, die den Füßen” (Magna Peccatrix): Fließend — “Bei dem Bronn, zu dem schon weiland” (Mulier Samaritana): Immer dasselbe Tempo — “Bei dem hochgeweihten Orte” (Maria Aegyptiaca): Fließend (5’20”)
    Flowing — Always the same tempo — Flowing
  13. 66’45”: “Neige, du Ohnegleiche” (Una poenitentium) (0’47”)
  14. 67’41”: “Er überwächst uns schon” (Choir of blissful boys) — “Vom edlen Geisterchor umgeben” (Una poenitentium): Unmerklich frischer werden (3’31”)
    Freshening up gradually
  15. 71’16”: “Komm! Hebe dich zu höhern Sphären” (Mater gloriosa): Sehr langsam (1’20”)
    Very slowly
  16. 72’35”: “Blicket auf” (Doctor Marianus – Chor): Sehr langsam (6’38”)
  17. 79’14” – 85’50”: “Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis” (Chorus Mysticus): Sehr langsam beginnend (10’58” — includes 7’07” applause & trailer)
    Beginning very slowly
  18. 85’50” – 92’57”: Applause & trailer (7’07”)

Performance & Recording

Riccardo Chailly / Lucerne Festival Orchestra, choirs, soloists, performing Mahler, Symphony No.8 (source: BD booklet, © Priska Ketterer)
Riccardo Chailly / Lucerne Festival Orchestra, choirs, soloists, performing Mahler, Symphony No.8 (source: BD booklet, © Priska Ketterer)

Introductory Remarks

No matter how much effort, money, etc. is invested in such a huge performance: there are major impediments which make a “perfect” performance virtually impossible (just as one will never find a 100% perfect recording of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” cycle!):

  • even with unlimited financial resources, it will be impossible to have enough, extended rehearsals with all the participants (the huge orchestra, three or even four choirs, 8 soloists)
  • a key part of the performance is with the vocal soloists. Assembling 8 top quality soloists that can master Mahler’s demanding parts, have a voice that is strong enough to project through the masses of sound from choirs and orchestra is a serious challenge by itself. Then, these soloists should form an ensemble and have excellent diction both in Latin and in German!
  • A particular challenge is the tenor: there are only a handful of true Heldentenors on this planet…

Conclusion: seeking 100% perfection in such a performance is the wrong goal. Rather, what should count is the overall experience, the “Gesamtkunstwerk”—and this is where the conductor’s role lies.

Conductor

I really like Riccardo Chailly’s conducting. He seems entirely immersed in the music, focused, concentrated, conducting with clear, precise (never spectacular) gestures, never trying to “show off” in any way, interacting with the orchestra through eye contact, facial expressions, gestures. He is in control of both the score, as well as of the huge apparatus on the podium. Besides the coordination, his main focus in the concert is in dynamic fine tuning, from the finest ppp up to the overwhelming sound of Mahler’s gigantic climaxes. Chailly’s tempo selection is natural throughout: he avoids extremes, excessive pomp (e.g., in the orchestral introduction to Part II), as well as furious tempo exaggerations (like when Bernstein “lets the horses loose”!).

Transitions are generally smooth and natural, as is the duration / timing of the few fermatas / general rests. There are very few instances where upon listening meticulously one may truly minor (irrelevant) coordination issues in transitions, between choirs and the orchestra. That’s barely worth mentioning, but I’m thinking of the one example of the ritardando to “Gehaltener” (more retained) at [69] in the score, in section 8 in the “track” list above: that transition feels slightly, momentarily shaky.

Chailly remains a true servant to Mahler’s score, in the best sense of the word. And (especially before the music starts, and upon conclusion of the two parts) one can almost touch his intent to dedicate this performance to the late Claudio Abbado: Chailly seems as much overwhelmed as the audience when the applause sets in.

Orchestra

As expected for such a high-profile ensemble, the orchestra performance is flawless, impeccable. Coordination, tonal purity and quality are all excellent—I can’t point to any real deficiencies. Maybe, maybe an even larger (!!) string body might have avoided a slight underrepresentation of the string sound, but that may just be the impression from the video.: I can’t judge how much sound engineering was involved, and how much that might have shifted / affected the balance. One also gets an idea about the quality and power of the organ’s “plain jeu”—although that’s an aspect that can hardly be represented adequately in such a video recording.

One minor quibble, concerning orchestra and conductor: The orchestral introduction to Part II (“tracks” 10 & 11 in the list above, from [9] in the score, “Etwas bewegter“) features a number of quaver quintuplets (all notes marcato). I can definitely not complain about the articulation in these quintuplets. However, to me, at least some of these sound a bit too metric / rigid: my preference would be for them to feature a little more agogics, to be slightly more fluent / flexible, rhythmically. But of course I cannot say that the performance is incorrect in that point.

Instrumental Soloists

With the high quality of this ensemble, it is pointless to try naming all outstanding soloists. They are all excellent, and the booklet has the complete list of all members of the orchestra. Here are just a few obvious highlights (also frequently in the focus of the camera): Jacques Zoon (flute), Ivan Podyomov (oboe), Alessandro Carbonare (clarinet), Matthias Racz (bassoon), Alessio Allegrini (horn), Reinhold Friedrich (trumpet), Gregory Ahss (violin / concertmaster), Wolfram Christ (viola), and Jens Peter Maintz (cello).

Choirs

With that many singers, a homogeneous choir sound is a given. The diction / pronunciation in the first part is excellent throughout, in Part II, the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks (filling the left half of the podium / choir balcony) proves is truly outstanding in diction, vocal homogeneity, projection and sound, from the softest ppp up to the full glory of the fff. I am particularly impressed with the ppp of the male voices.

As much as one can tell from the recording, also the Tölzer Knabenchor (on the two lateral galleries above the stage) offers excellent homogeneity, strength / projection, as well as diction. I can’t criticize by any means the two non-German speaking choirs, the Latvian Radio Choir and Orfeón Donostiarra—for one, these two choirs are not visually separated (except that the women of Orfeón Donostiarra are dressed all-white). I the Goethe’s text in Part II, close-up views seem to indicate that they are not singing in their mother tongue, and maybe the diction / pronunciation is a tad less clear than that of the choirs singing in their native language. Or is this just what my eyes want to make me believe, trying to read the singer’s lips?

Vocal Soloists

One should keep in mind that the appearance of a voice in such a recording depends on the microphone placement. The same holds true for the vocal balance between the soloists, and the balance between solos, choir, and orchestra. The impression from the video recording may not be in agreement with that from a live concert experience. I’m merely judging the recording, as I have not witnessed the live performance.

Ensemble performance is of particular importance in Part I (Part II with the text from Goethe’s “Faust II” features more solos than ensemble singing). Within the limits of what one can possible / realistically expect, the ensemble performance is excellent, with good vocal balance, well-fitting voices.

One must keep in mind that in this symphony, the performance of the vocal soloists is crucial, very central to the outcome of a performance. I have listened to several CD recordings of this symphony, and in this aspect, the Lucerne performance is absolutely on a par with notable CD recordings featuring conductors such as Bernard Haitink, Georg Solti, Leonard Bernstein, Claudio Abbado, David Zinman.

If I wanted to be nit-picking, I would say that in the final bars of Part I, the two sopranos should perhaps be a bit more coherent (in timbre and volume) in the partly overlapping high C’s—but that’s criticism at a high level, particularly as these particular notes are not so exposed in this recording. The latter may be seen as regrettable, but in this case also has gratifying aspects, see below.

Ricarda Merbeth, Soprano 1 / Magna Peccatrix

Ricarda Merbeth has a strong voice with natural, well-balanced timbre, effortlessly reaching the high C. Unfortunately, her vibrato (certainly for my taste) is way too heavy / strong. Her intonation may be perfect—but the pitch excursions in the heavy vibrato not only make the intonation unclear, but they also cause her voice to dominate, often inappropriately, and it prevents the voice from mixing with the others. In the same vein, Ricarda Merbeth appears to lack some subtlety: her part is not merely about strength and domination. Camera close-ups reinforce the impression of a singer often playing out power and strength, not really trying to fit into the ensemble.

There is a saying that “the vibrato should not exceed the range of a minor third”, attributed to people such as Richard Strauss. I personally take this as a joke, a gross exaggeration. Yes, voices vibrate naturally (reflecting the strain and flexibility of the singer’s diaphragm)—but in my opinion that should primarily work through modulations in volume, less so in pitch (note that there is a difference between vocal and instrumental, particularly string, vibrato).

Juliane Banse, Soprano 2 / Una poenitentium

A very nice, full-bodied voice with excellent, warm timbre—among the very best in this ensemble. Juliane Banse’s vibrato is maybe also on the heavy side (especially when her lower jaw starts wagging), but in general feels much more natural and more contained than Ricarda Merbeth’s. Banse’s volume and vocal balance are excellent over the entire, large tonal range. I really like her singing!

Anna Lucia Richter, Soprano 3 / Mater Gloriosa

Una poenitentium is a tiny role (just in sections 22 and 23 in the listing above). Anna Lucia Richter sings this from the organ gallery, high above the stage—this sets her apart from the other voices, and it also makes it hard to compare / relate her voice to the other vocal soloists. Her role standing for the Virgin Mary, Anna Lucia Richter not only sings with a very natural, “unspoiled” voice, using very minimal vibrato—with her friendly expression, her smiling expressing mildness and benevolence, she makes up for an almost heavenly, beautiful, angel-like appearance above all the other performers.

She must be younger and less experienced than the other soloists, and her voice doesn’t (yet) have the power and firmness of the others—but these qualities are not required here, I think. One should also keep in mind that her part is extremely exposed in the score already—singing this from the height and distance of the organ gallery make that even much more demanding! While listening to her, I felt that this is exactly the type of singer and voice that the score asks for: a joy to watch and listen to!

Sara Mingardo, Alto 1 / Mulier Samaritana

There is no doubt in my mind that Sara Mingardo is the most impressive voice in the ensemble: astounding volume, tonal and dynamic range, perfect timbre and control, well-projecting, always with the “right” amount of vibrato (in terms of frequency, strength, etc.)—briefly: this miust be among the best alto voices available today!

Mihoko Fujimura, Alto 2 / Maria Aegyptiaca

Mihoko Fujimura’s voice may not be at the level of Sara Mingardo’s—but her role in this symphony (Alto 2 / Maria Aegyptiaca) gives her little chance to demonstrate power and range (plus, the microphone placement may be at her disadvantage). However, from the video I can state that she provides a firm, solid, yet inconspicuous base to the female voices and fits well into the ensemble.

Andreas Schager, Tenor / Doctor Marianus

A difficult role—one that requires a true Heldentenor! Andreas Schager has excellent volume, “ping” / projection and height, even though in terms of vocal density and stability / firmness he doesn’t quite match up to prime examples of his vocal genre, such as the late James King (1925 – 2005). Nevertheless, Schager performs exceptionally well in this part, which is demanding not just in power and height, but also in terms of extended strain (I did not count the bars, but this must be the biggest vocal part in this score).

Peter Mattei, Baritone / Pater ecstaticus

A short role, but excellent, warm, full voice, natural, well-balanced, good projection, despite a relatively mellow, dark timbre. Excellent fit into the ensemble.

Samuel Youn, Bass / Pater profundus

Another impressive voice in this performance: well-equilibrated in strength and timbre, natural in the vibrato, very good diction (considering he is Korean!)—with few exceptions where articulation / pronunciation indicate that his mother tongue is definitely not German. A very dramatic, expressive performance, almost as if on an opera stage!


General Aspects

Video vs. Live Concert Experience?

Mahler’s Symphony No.8 is spectacular already by itself, whichever way one listens to it. However, seeing the masses of instrumentalists and singers in action definitely makes this symphony a memorable experience. On top of that, the White Hall in the KKL Lucerne certainly adds to this overwhelming experience.

Of course, nothing can really replace the live concert experience. Particularly from a good seat, some people might add—however, there are essentially no bad seats in the KKL. Sure, close-up one may get more visual and auditive detail. I have never personally had any of the distant seats, but I was told by insiders that the acoustics are just as good anywhere, and what one loses in close-up detail, one gains in perfect, equilibrated sound (“like a CD recording”) on rear, higher-up balcony seats.

That certainly speaks for the live experience, particularly as no CD, DVD or BD, stereo or multi-channel audio can really reproduce the fine acoustics, let alone the concert atmosphere. Sadly, the organizational effort for Mahler’s Eighth is huge, and hence such opportunities are rare. There were two of these performances in 2016 in Lucerne, these were sold out and the ticket prices speak for themselves: they are probably out of reach for many concertgoers, even ignoring the high demand.

Specifics with the Video

Compared to a live concert, the video offers “inside views”, such as close-ups on individual instrumentalists, the “orchestral” view of the conductor—none of this is available to concertgoers.

Conclusion

Go for it! The live experience would be better, richer—but it’s possible, even likely that you won’t get a chance to experience this symphony in concert!

Video (BD) vs. Audio (CD)?

Compared to a standard audio CD, watching this concert as video has advantages and disadvantages:

Advantages of the Video:

The complexity of Mahler’s score, that of the concert setup with well over 100 instrumentalists, 8 vocal soloists and three choirs is huge. The video helps assigning voices to persons / roles / instruments. And it gives a true impression of the complexity on stage. Plus, even a live concert doesn’t give the same amount of close-up insight into the “inner workings” of an orchestra. Many will view a video vastly richer experience than pure audio.

A top-quality audio recording focuses on the quality of sound, and also the listener’s attention is entirely with the sound. In the case of the video, the sound quality may be equivalent, even though the bulk of the publishing effort will be in the visual / video part.

Disadvantages:

It is quite likely that the listener is hearing more detail in a pure audio recording, as this is the only thing to focus on—even though one may have a hard time assigning a specific voice / sound in a work as complex as this one. On the other hand, the listener’s attention may easily get distracted by the visuals. Also, a video forces the listener to see & watch what the direction & the camera operators found interesting—which is not necessarily what one might want to follow visually in a live concert.

On top of that, not every performer is given a favorable representation in a video. Close-up views often reveal details in a musician’s physiognomy, dress, facial mimics, body language, etc. that I personally don’t want to see at all. In the extreme, this may be disturbing rather than just a distraction. I won’t go into specifics here.

In general terms, I personally prefer a more “conservative” camera control, with less zooming into details, particularly with soloists, conductor and choir. With the orchestra, it is OK to show how instruments are played (particularly exotic ones, or instruments that are hardly visible from the audience)—but the focus should be on instruments, not the instrumentalists.

Packaging

Booklet / Typography

The information in the booklet (good-quality, non-glossy paper) is totally OK. The 8 pictures are of reasonable quality—I don’t expect glossy paper (which is susceptible to finger prints anyway). There are 3.5 –  4 well-filled pages of good information in each of the three languages (DE, EN, FR).

The one criticism on the documentation I have is that track numberings and track durations are fairly meaningless if the BD is not organized in tracks (see below). The way things are, the durations just give a rough outline of the size of the “segments”. I have tried helping this situation by listing start times in the list above.

The other criticism I have is with the typography / layout: I can live with the relatively crude BD cover, and both the plain text and the track listing, also the list of the members of the orchestra are well-readable, both in typography (font type and size), as well as in the content. However, multi-line titles (pp. 9, 15, 21, 28), and particularly the list of the artists on page 3 are all fairly hard to read. That’s not only because that part of the text is all capitalized, but mainly because the character and line spacing is such that the lines are much closer than the characters within a line. It takes a conscious effort to read the names of individual vocal soloists from what looks like vertical columns of arbitrary characters. Not a good idea—or rather, a really poor typographic decision!

Tracks?

One major flaw with the recording is that the content consists of a single, 93-minute track, which makes it not just impossible to jump to any of the 26 segments listed in the “track listing”, but one cannot even just jump to Part II of the symphony. Again, the starting times in the list above may help, but that’s not really a solution to this deficiency. I don’t know whether this problem also exists with the DVD version—I only looked at the BD version.

(No, it’s not my player software: I can see and access the “chapters” in standard BD videos without any problem.)


Conclusions

An excellent recording, musically certainly comparable with my favorites in my CD collection (Claudio Abbado / Berlin Philharmonics, Leonard Bernstein / Vienna Philharmonics, followed by George Solti / Chicago Symphony Orchestra and David Zinman / Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich). With that, plus the added benefit of giving a good impression of the atmosphere of the live performance(s) in the White Hall of Lucerne’s KKL, this is definitely worth a strong recommendation. I say this despite the few negative aspects—the prime one isn’t in the voices (pretty much all recordings have limitations with one or the other solo singer), but in the lack of track structuring on the BluRay disk.

 

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