MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 – Viktoria Yastrebova, soprano/ Ailish Tynan, soprano/ Liudmila Dudinova, soprano/Lilli Paasikivi, mezzo-soprano/ Zlata Bulycheva, mezzo-soprano/Sergey Semishkur, tenor/ Alexey Markov, baritone/ Evgeny Nikitin, bass/Choir of Eltham College/ Choral Arts Society of Washington/ London Symphony Chorus and London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev – LSO Live multichannel SACD LSO0669, 77:22 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***1/2:
The famous Leonard Bernstein used to comment that one cannot exaggerate the music of Gustav Mahler enough, and arguably, Bernstein proved his own dictum through the accomplished interpretations he left behind for Deutsche Grammophon and Columbia. Since his death nearly two decades ago, many conductors have taken this composer’s music far beyond the extremes that Bernstein recounted, particularly in the subject of tempo – specifically slow tempi. One probably never imagined there would be a time when adjectives such as "poised" and "balanced" would fit as signatures of Bernstein’s Mahler, but now more than ever, they certainly do. After all, under-playing is every bit as severe a defect as a preponderance to excess. As an interpreter, many of Bernstein’s most celebrated testaments were based on his keen adherence to a literal reading of the score: that is what made his Haydn ever so rejoicing, for example, never mind his Mahler.
These ideas swirled to mind after listening to Valery Gergiev’s latest Mahler Eighth in continuation of the complete cycle with the London Symphony. Here is a performance of great emotional extremes, one that squeezes every drop of expression in between the notated score, and takes the time in doing so. The first part runs just over 20 minutes, while the remainder part to nearly 55, and yet, neither parts sound uncomfortably out of place. One may be familiar with the false dichotomy often seen from notes and commentaries of Mahler performances, rejecting the idea of "self-indulgent" interpretations over "symphonic" ones. The former is characterized, as in this performance, by generous use of rubato and broad fluctuations of tempo between sections; the latter by fewer contrasts and (albeit, usually) a swifter, less dissected view to the whole picture. Historically, Bernstein was the epitome of the former approach; conductors like Kubelik and Haitink represented the latter.
The reason this dichotomy is unwarranted is clear: Mahler’s Symphonies depend on their structural qualities as much as the myriad of expressive colours from the conductor’s willingness to explore into the extremes of tempo, dynamics, timbre, and texture that these works embody. The million-dollar question is: how much really is too much? Obviously this will differ from one listener to the next, and hence, there may be some who find this Eighth Symphony to be "too much.” This aside, it should be acknowledged that Gergiev’s interpretation, like Bernstein’s, bases its excesses (if that is what they are called) firmly in what Mahler wrote, and not on some gratuitous whim of the conductor.
Now, here comes the bad news.
In fitting with the spiritual text to which this music is based, the St Paul’s Cathedral would have been an ultimate destination of choice. But what should have been a crowning glory of the mighty “Symphony of a Thousand” was bestowed with mixed blessings also because of this choice in venue. The newly restored St Paul’s Cathedral, situated directly off the Millennium Bridge from the South Bank, is a wondrous monument, provoking a silent awe beneath its great dome for those who have visited. But clearly, even from its marvels and the sonic enhancements captured on this SACD recording, St. Paul’s Cathedral is not a place for music of this scale. As an analogy, this extraordinary score sounded as if someone smeared the score with ink while it is still wet. Mahler would not have rejoiced on the venue choice to recast his musical “gift for the whole nation” – which was a major limitation in this recording that swayed it away from a full star rating. For instance, the opening "Veni, Creator Spiritus" roared into open space, but promptly disappeared, possibly heavenward.
Second, in Mahler’s setting of the final scene from Goethe’s Faust, the solo voices become individuals – or at least should. Excellent though his eight principally Russian soloists were, their most fervent efforts were drained from presence by a total lack of intimacy and immediacy off the speakers. Both sopranos – Viktoria Yastrebova and Ailish Tynan – sang full and true and there was a virile, intrepid tenor in Sergey Semishkur. The summoning of the “Mater Gloriosa,” where the LSO’s sweetest violin sound floated on a cushion of harmonium, brought a moment of magical calamity. It would be the kind of serenity that passes all understanding. But, then came poor Liudmila Dudinova’s singing that followed, whose voice was regrettably flat. Still, the Chorus promptly arrived in a breathtaking hush of massed voices to take charge on the ascendancy. A pity, even with an audio system aptly equipped, the off-stage trumpets stretching the "Veni, Creator Spiritus" motif could barely be heard.
Sonically, this SACD multichannel recording would have captured the full depth and breath of music performed in this venue, and one could only guess how Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde would sound here, for example. Surprisingly, the SACD also suffered askew balances, giving one the impression of a sound perspective of being seated in the last row of the Cathedral’s hall. At times, the vocals would seem completely drowned by the instrumentalists, as in the opening of “Veni, creator spiritus” or later between 1:30 – 1:41 of “Accende lumen sensibus.” However, given these critical apprehensions, there is no question that the interpretative understanding and partnership of Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony represents yet another tour de force collaboration in the music world today. The ensemble plays truthfully out for him, and this in turn gave Gergiev the assurance he needs to commit entirely to his interpretive ideas, certain of their effective realization. All of this is clearly audible in this otherwise fine recording of Mahler’s almighty Eighth.
— Patrick P. L. Lam