Solti - Mahler Symphony No.8 - MusicWeb International
19 March 2012MusicWeb International
This really is a nostalgia trip, as these LPs set me off on my Mahler quest nearly forty years ago. It was a happy accident when I came across this Decca set - with its distinctive fish-eye photo on the box - in my record library. After a single, stunned audition I went out and bought the records, which became the cornerstone of my Mahler collection. A couple of years ago I acquired the 24/96 Legends reissue, but found it oddly alienating. And despite the extra clarity and focus there's no disguising moments of compression and overload - at the culmination of Part I for instance - all of which seems more disfiguring on the Legends CD than it was on the LPs.
Impatient to compare that disc with the 24/96 flacs from Linn, I downloaded the very large files with a minimum of fuss using their download manager. First off I was pleased to see all 16 cues are retained, so useful in a work of this length. I fired up the PC, and within seconds of hearing that glorious invocation all those memories came flooding back. Solti's muscular, sometimes headlong, approach to Mahler has been much maligned by the musical revisionists, and while haste is a factor in many of his recordings it bothers me less when the performance has such authority and thrust.
Yes, there are incoherent patches in Part I, but when the effect is so exhilarating it's easy to overlook Solti's impetuousness. As for the roster of soloists, it reads like a Who's Who of great voices from the 1970s; more importantly, they are a very well balanced and impassioned team. But it's in the crags and valleys of Part II - with all its antiphonal effects - that this performance really blossoms. The sound is warm and spacious - qualities sorely lacking in the Legends reissue - and although the soloists are quite close it all adds to the immediacy and immersive nature of this performance.
It goes without saying that the orchestra has never sounded so full and well-rounded, voices well caught and upper strings clear without being strident. As for the bass, it's firm, if not as extended as it is on some modern recordings, and that means the organ isn't always as physically ‘present' as I'd remembered from the LPs. That said, in Wie Felsenabgrund mir zu Füßen (tr. 9) it is tummy-wobbling, the Wunderhorn sunniness of the Vienna Boys as much a delight now as it was then.
Goodness, I'd forgotten just how complete Solti's understanding of this work is, tempo relationships, rhythms and changing textures superbly judged. With all of that comes an unerring sense of the dramatic - he was as much a man of the theatre as he was of the concert hall - none of the symphony's nodal points missed or underplayed. In an age of numbing ubiquity, where Mahler is a booming industry, it's easy to forget just how important - and earth-moving - these early recordings were, and I include Kubelík, Bernstein and Abravanel among them. Indeed, I found myself quite choked up by the forgotten felicities of this great set. It really is a deserving classic and, at last, we have a high-res re-master that captures all the awe and sense of discovery that attended those pioneering LPs.
For a perfect example of this download's analogue-like ‘bloom' - one of veteran critic Edward Greenfield's famous descriptors - just listen to the full, ripe harp sound in Höchste Herrscherin der Welt (tr. 12). Such luminosity and detail is all very well, but so many Mahler Eights founder through want of cohesion and thrust. There's no danger of that here, as Solti knows exactly where he's going from the moment he sets sail. Indeed, there's a palpable, deep-ocean swell as the ship nears port, the crow's nest cry of ‘Blicket auf' a sign that land is near - those glorious harps again.
Few recordings of Mahler's Eighth have ever come close to the surge and amplitude of this one, as much a testament to the skills of Kenneth Wilkinson and Gordon Parry as it is to those of Solti and his formidable forces. Indeed, I'd forgotten just how much tension Solti generates in the closing moments, or how sustained the beauty of the composer's many colouristic touches. I defy anyone not to be moved - and moved mightily - by this approaching apotheosis, the massed choirs so full of certainty and splendour. And yes, the organ makes a powerful impact here, the radiance of that great finale scarcely dimmed by that familiar compression and overload.
This download knocks the Legends CD into a cocked hat; true, there are moments in both where the recording shows its age, but in its latest incarnation there's a vastly improved focus and fullness that will surely appeal to vinyl junkies. If, like me, your collection includes Mahler Eights on CD, Blu-ray and downloads, you may hesitate before paying £18 for another one. Don't, for this is one of the very best downloads I've heard, and one that confirms just how sophisticated - and musically satisfying - this technology has become.
Go on, treat yourself.
Related LinksChicago Symphony OrchestraGeorg SoltiMahler: Symphony No.8 in E flat - 'Symphony of a Thousand'