MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 – Utah Symphony/ Thierry Fischer – Reference Recordings

Spectacular, moving, and, well, what else do you need?

MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E-flat – Orla Boylan, sop./ Celena Shafer, sop./ Amy Owens, sop./ Charlotte Hellekant, mezzo/ Tamara Mumford, mezzo/ Barry Banks, ten./ Markus Werba, bar./ Jordan Bisch, bass/ Mormon Tabernacle Choir/ Choristers of the Madeleine Choir School/ Utah Symphony/ Thierry Fischer – Reference Recordings multichannel SACD FR-725SACD (2 Discs), 79:41 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

One of the highlights of my concert attending career was in the 1980s when Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony presented Mahler’s gargantuan Eighth Symphony. The performance was immaculate, the orchestra top notch, and the choral work spectacular. Add to that an all-star set of singers, and even the acoustics of Symphony Hall in Atlanta could not mar the experience, a sonic marvel that all who were there will never forget. Mahler’s opus is also one of those that conductors not especially noted for Mahlerian expertise like to tackle. Colin Davis made a wonderful SACD with the Bavarian Radio Symphony that still holds its own, and he was hardly known for this repertory. Shaw, who never shied away from anything big and choral, had a firm grasp on this work, which really is different from the other nine in so many ways, but the Telarc recording that followed was simply unable to capture the moment, sounding compressed and sonically constipated. Telarc had mastered the vagaries of this venue by then, but the piece just plain defeated their valiant efforts.

Mahler knew how imposing this piece, the last he would hear, would be for orchestras and especially choruses, which sing almost continually, far more than any other piece he ever created. The time, 1906, when the sketches appeared in a two-month period, were very happy ones for the composer, even though the same general time frame produced some of his darkest music, including the Sixth Symphony and the Kindertotenlieder. Mahler was not a composer who translated his current life experiences into his music, but instead used his inspiration to create music that transcended the everyday and the normative. The Eighth was set to cause the “planets and sun rotating”, and that effect is certainly part and parcel of this mighty symphony.

This work has suffered the most in its recorded genealogy, for the obvious reason that it is so expensive to mount. Solti’s monumental Decca recording still generally rules the roost, and sounds wonderful in its recent two-channel Blu-ray Audio format. And Gergiev, a surprisingly adept Mahlerian, turned in a fine reading in his complete SACD set. Yet the times cry out for a new, fresh reading in a setting worthy of the name.

Now, we have one.

One doesn’t think of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as suited to this kind of music, but in truth their effort is simply outstanding in every way, and the children’s choir every bit as solid and satisfying. Thierry Fisher is working miracles out west, and paces the work beautifully, avoiding the pitfalls of exaggeration and overemphasis that can kill this piece. His tempos in fact almost match Shaw’s exactly, and for me that is very high praise. The Utah Symphony is playing marvelously these days, with many people not realizing the formidable Mahler pedigree that the orchestra enjoys—this music is in their collective blood. Mix in Soundmirror’s exemplary recording—not easy in the vast expanse of the Mormon Tabernacle—and Reference’s high production values, and you have a release of immediate impact and high desirability, the best ever recorded with a performance of top notch quality.

— Steven Ritter

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