Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 8 in E flat major
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Jacquelyn Wagner (soprano), Sasha Cooke (alto), Jess Dandy (alto), Bary Banks (tenor), Julian Orlishausen (baritone), Christian Immler (bass), Minnesota Chorale, Kathy Saltzman Romey (artistic director), National Lutheran Choir, David Cherwien (artistic director), Minnesota Boychoir, Mark S. Johnson (artistic director), Angelica Cantani Youth Choir, Elizabeth Egger (artistic director), Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (conductor)
Recording: Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota (June 10–12, 2022) – 83’13
SACD BIS BIS-2496
What a way to finish. As a near-capstone to not only an impressive cycle of recordings of Mahler’s symphonies (the Third will be next and last in the cycle) but also the final concert of his tenure as Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä conducts his forces in Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.” Mahler’s Eighth is a thundering piece requiring massive forces, but one that conveys a supreme hopefulness and divine inspiration toward higher achievement. Despite the trials of Mahler’s life, and his own anxieties and insecurities, the music of the Eighth, which the composer premiered less than a year before his death, is supremely optimistic and for orchestras across the world, it is a milestone achievement.
For those familiar with Vänskä’s impressive work thus far in his Mahler recordings, this latest installment will likely continue to satisfy them. Indeed, his recording of the Second wore well for me and I find myself enjoying it more upon repeated listenings. Vänskä’s readings are straightforward. His tempos, as the opening demonstrates, are moderately brisk. Likewise, the opening of Part II, ambles on with a clear destination in mind. Just as crucially, Vänskäs transitions between tempos have a very organic quality where time is pushed or pulled just enough to set a graceful landing in the new sections. The results of these traits provide a Mahler experience that flows neatly and feels shorter than it actually is. Vänskä’s Mahler doesn’t wear out its welcome. At 83’13, this recording is not even close to the quickest in the catalogue. Solti and Abbado are a few minutes faster. Boulez is a few minutes longer. But the Minnesotans’ tempos feel fast enough to be thrilling, the slower moments awe-inspiring while keeping direction. We can call it a Goldilocks Mahler interpretation.
At his disposal, after 19 years under the Finnish maestro, the orchestra plays with assuredness and even a thrilling abandon when called for at the end of the Part I. Strings and wind soloists stand out in their virtuosity; brass as well a formidable component of the sound. The cohesiveness of the entire ensemble is on full display here and an impressive feature of this orchestra. Their brilliance as a great American band is not to be doubted.
Vänskä’s soloists here aren’t quite as satisfactory. On the whole they come across underpowered, stretched. Carolyn Sampson acquits herself as a fine Magna Peccatrix in Part II and soars thrillingly above the ensemble in Part I. She is also pressed into duty as Mater Gloriosa as a last minute substitute due to COVID illness. Jacquelyn Wagner is a noble vocal presence and altos Sash Cooke and Jess Dandy complement the higher voices well and sing with assurance. The male soloists are less fulfilling, though. Julian Orlishausen is a fervent Pater Ecstaticus, but the voice tends to be faint. Christian Immler’s Pater Profundus is a resonant vocal presence, but like Orlishausen, underpowered toward the top of his range. Tenor Barry Banks is ardent, but sounds pushed to his limit in the upper part of his range where one would want a more heroic presence in “Höchste Herrscherin der Welt.”
The choral forces come across as muffled. Most distressing, the tenors lose vocal strength at the top of the staff. This was puzzling to me. In the interest of full disclosure, I listened to this recording twice before checking the liner notes where I read (and saw) the choral forces were necessarily masked due to the COVID pandemic. This is a reasonable explanation to me, but may have had a noticeable impact on their sound. The recording captures the ensemble really well with the gorgeous harmonium and celeste details beautifully portrayed. The surround sound for the offstage brass is a welcome feature.
The mere existence of this recording is a tribute to Vänskä’s work and determination with the Minnesota Orchestra. Post-COVID, the challenges performing ensembles were faced with were innumerable. To put out such a fulfilling performance of this most difficult of pieces under the circumstances is all the more notable and artistically interesting addition to the catalogue.