Recording of July 2006: Mahler: Symphony 8

MAHLER: Symphony 8
Barbara Kubiak, Izabela Klosinska, Marta Boberska, sopranos; Jadwiga Rappé, Ewa Marciniec, altos; Timothy Bentch, tenor; Wojtek Drabowicz, baritone; Piotr Nowacki, bass; Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra, Polish Radio Choir in Krakow, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University Choir, Warsaw Boys Choir; Antoni Wit, conductor
Naxos 8.550533-34 (2 CDs). 2006. Andrzej Sasin, Aleksandra Nagorko, prods. DDD. TT: 80:51
Performance *****
Sonics *****

In addition to being a bargain and a wonderful performance, this is the most aurally stunning performance of this vast work to appear—and that includes Klaus Tennstedt's on EMI, formerly the finest sonic achievement the work had received, with a more natural balance of voices and orchestra than on any other recording. But after hearing this new Naxos release, I suspect you will know what the work is supposed to sound like and the effect Mahler wanted it to have on its audience.

Years ago, Sony released a Mahler Symphony 3 under Michael Tilson Thomas in which every instrument was audible and specific; it was eerie and unnatural, the worst aspect of digital recording. Here, the Naxos engineers do not use close-ups; Mahler's subtleties come out of the huge fabric with seeming effortlessness. Somehow, they have perfectly captured the work's enormity—its breadth and depth, the offstage brass choirs, the organ (which invariably sounds overdubbed, too soft or too loud), the contrapuntal, massed choirs—as well as its delicacy. So not only will this performance blow you out of the room (as in the old Maxell ad, with the guy in the armchair) with its awesome strength (I want to say "ferocity," but much to its credit, it is not ferocious), you'll also experience the weird chill that begins Part II, with its combination of pianissimo sounds—the whish on the cymbals, high string tremolos, the following low-string pizzicati—that seems to come from the moon's surface; you'll hear the mandolin solos, the tinkle of the harps, the quiet singing of the choirs, and each voice in the huge first part fugue.

Conductor Antoni Wit begins unflinchingly, the sound huge and grand, but immediately proves himself and his choirs, et al, capable of great subtleties and every dynamic response. The soprano solo "Imple superna gratia" is soft and caressing, but the movement soon builds organically to a gigantic climax until it is interrupted by a tolling bell as dramatic as it is grave. The entry of the children's chorus in the "Accende lumen sensibus" section is underlined and clear enough to make us recall it when its music reappears in Part II. Wit's tempos are neither particularly fast nor slow; he avoids both Kent Nagano's (on Harmonia Mundi) overt, almost embarrassing sensuality and doesn't try for Simon Rattle's (EMI) whip-smart "tension," a quick approach that anyway hides a shallowness of purpose. Wit's tempo for all of Part I is an ideal allegro, and not even in the more introspective passages does he allow any slackening of the pace. The solos for soprano and then each alto in Part II follow one upon the other in an uninterrupted arc, rather quickly; by contrast, "Dir, der Unberührbaren" is measured and still—and hypnotically beautiful.

The performance by the Warsaw National Philharmonic is absolutely topnotch; their winds don't have the gorgeous sounds of some German orchestras, but neither do they bite; the strings are lush and luscious; the brass are big and grand, but capable of playing softly and humbly. And the lovely piccolo, harps, celesta, piano, and harmonium that make up the interlude before the final chorale begins are simply heavenly.

The soloists are glorious, one and all. One might complain that bass Piotr Nowacki as Pater Profundis is almost too emphatically unhappy, but that would beg the question. I dare say you've never heard in this music a tenor like Timothy Bentch—not even Ben Heppner. Bentch's top B-flats and Bs are as heroic as his sweet singing is sweet. His "Blicket auf," a moment that can cause fear and trembling, is stirring in all the right ways, and Wit's slight holding back of the tempo here is a stroke of genius. Alto Jadwiga Rappé's tone is warm and dark; Wojtek Drabowicz's firm, dramatic baritone as Pater Ecstaticus impresses; sopranos Izabela Klosinska and Barbara Kubiak ring out clearly from the crowd; and soprano Marta Boberska shines from a distance as Mater Gloriosa, her soft B-flats, it seems, taken out of the air. The four choirs—there seem to be at least 300 voices—are magnificent.

Yes, there are a bevy of terrific Mahler 8s on the market, from the newer Nagano (Harmonia Mundi) to the older Leonard Bernstein (Sony), to Riccardo Chailly's beautiful reading and Georg Solti's powerhouse (both on Decca). But somehow this new recording says it all. I own seven recordings of this work, and I now feel as if this one is enough. It isn't missing a thing.—Robert Levine

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