Mahler: Symphony No. 8

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: Symphony No. 8
PERFORMER: Soloists, choirs, Gothenburg Opera Orchestra, Gothenburg SO/ Neeme Järvi
CATALOGUE NO: BIS CD-700 DDD
Each instalment in Neeme Järvi’s Mahler cycle for Chandos has something new to say, but it’s hard to tell whether the insights of this First Symphony outweigh the exaggerations. Is there a valid point being made, for instance, about the first movement – mired in its ‘long sleep of winter’ for much longer than usual? Admittedly the awakening, when it finally comes after an emphatic developmental crisis, is massively impressive. The Scherzo’s central dream sequence drifts woozily, exaggerated even by Bernstein standards; the huntsman’s funeral is intriguingly brisk; and the finale lurches between magic and mannerism, capped by an almost ludicrous victory charge.

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A glance at the timings of the Eighth – this time from BIS, a live gesture of support for those of Järvi’s fellow Estonians orphaned by the ferry disaster – prompted fears of more speedy eccentricities. Here, though, Järvi’s grasp of the long line and, in the second movement, his keen sense of purpose from craggy Romantic landscape to heavenly light, articulate Mahler’s long-term vision more vividly than on any other recording I know. All eight Nordic soloists – even the unwieldy Ulla Gustafsson, an exciting but raw dramatic soprano-in-the-making – seem immersed in the drive and sweep of the whole.

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Above all, Järvi captures the essential naivety of this late-Romantic optimism, much assisted when necessary by the luminous tenderness of his Gothenburg orchestra. It takes a labour of love like this to highlight the problem of Kurt Masur’s Mahler Nine with the New York Philharmonic. You can’t fault the playing as such – Masur must have worked hard to bring the strings and woodwind up to the standard of the stupendous NY brass – but somehow it never touches on the rawness of Mahler’s anger and terror of the chasms which open up beneath it. A few fascinating details in the inner movements apart, this is a performance devoid of that vocalising temperament at the heart of every good (and, for that matter, interestingly bad) Mahler interpretation. David Nice