Mahler: Symphony No. 8

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: EMI
ALBUM TITLE: Mahler: Symphony No. 8
WORKS: Symphony No. 8
PERFORMER: CBSO & C, Soloists, Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: 577 9452
Over the past 18 years, Rattle’s steadily evolving Mahler cycle for EMI has brought us insights and surprises equal to any other, Bernstein’s included. He chooses to crown it all – or maybe things just turned out that way – with the Eighth Symphony, Mahler’s last sustained ascent to the heavenly regions before the shadow of the valley of death fell across his final masterpieces.

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Many listeners might have expected Berlin to host the farewell banquet; in fact we are back where the cycle officially began, in Birmingham, with the orchestra (and chorus) Rattle raised to international status, visiting choristers from London and Toronto, and a truly world-class but hardly predictable line-up of soloists. The faith Rattle places in his old stamping-ground has been amply reciprocated here. There are just one or two places, like the luscious middle-European glide of the Mater Gloriosa halfway through the operatic-style setting in Part Two of Goethe’s metaphysical Faust finale, where the vibrant sheen of Berlin or Vienna strings might have made a difference. Otherwise, it’s conviction all the way, allowing Rattle’s dauntingly fast tempos to strike with the force of revelation.

The speeds are surely his approach to stripping away the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ varnish which has dogged the symphony ever since its inflated premiere in 1910. While Nagano’s Berlin-based interpretation, reviewed last month, promised to do the same but bogged down the detail with uncertain pacing, everything here soars on rainbow wings. The rapid coda of the first movement’s pentecostal hymn, powered by all the impetuousness the score demands, takes some adjustment on the listener’s part. But once the buzzing angels swoop down in Part 2, the novelty is irresistible. Never have the fragments of first-movement themes, bouncing and billowing on a sea of azure blue, come across more clearly; never has the essential naivety of Mahler’s vision been more convincing.

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There are, uniquely given some of Mahler’s demands, no weak links in the operatic team here. The men – John Relyea, the vindicated choice of stalwart David Wilson-Johnson and singular tenor John Villars – put across the text with a clarity much assisted by Rattle’s pliant support; mezzo Birgit Remmert is granted perhaps the most memorable long-breathed phrasing, while the miraculous Christine Brewer makes her floated pianissimo top C on the final ascent sound ridiculously easy. The fervour of the masses here is a suitable substitute for the fully professional chorus on Solti’s hitherto unbeatable Decca spectacular; and the children, barely distinguishable in Nagano’s Eighth, gild the lily with exceptional spirit. They come off best in an artfully-balanced recording which doesn’t at first provide enough air around the soloists but which comes into its own with intelligent handling of the problematic second movement. The final ascent to the big blue yonder is surely unsurpassable on both the sonic and interpretative fronts. There’s no doubt, then, that Rattle has inspired all concerned to an achievement which joins his groundbreaking readings of the Third, Seventh and Tenth Symphonies in the Mahlerian heaven. David Nice