Mahler: Symphony No 8 / Wit, Warsaw National Po, Et Al
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Just when you thought you didn't need yet another Mahler 8, along comes this version, and it just about sweeps the board. Let's face it, it's been a good couple of years for this symphony. Chailly's Decca recording was magnificently played and sung; Nagano's is unrivalled for its sensuality and atmosphere and is sensational in surround sound; and EMI recently reissued the Bertini--exciting, cogent, and perhaps the finest of all in terms of singing and orchestral execution. Antoni Wit, whose Mahler hasn't been all that impressive thus far, comes closest to Bertini in terms of the sheer intelligence of his conducting, and in his scrupulous adherence to both the spirit and the letter of the score. But he also has that sense of vastness that Bertini deliberately underplays, but with no loss of clarity. The engineering really is something special. It captures lots of detail in quiet passages and has plenty of amplitude at the climaxes, including an organ and offstage brass better integrated into the overall sound picture than in any other performance.
Wit is helped by really outstanding choral singing. The combined choirs have enough power to make the contrapuntal lines in the first movement's epic fugue clear, even in a large acoustic, and the children are simply terrific. As with Tennstedt's recording, the soloists emerge naturally from within the orchestral fabric, their lines intertwining with Mahler's characteristic writing for the winds and strings. This makes all of those "Wunderhorn"-style solos in the second movement spring colorfully to life.
Not only do the singers cooperate and blend splendidly with each other in the first movement, but there's not a significantly weak link among them. Soprano Izabela Klosinska's fresh, girlish soprano is ideal for Gretchen, even if her German pronunciation is a bit strange, and all of the other women are excellent. Tenor Timonthy Bentch does as fine a job with his first big number in praise of the Virgin as just about anyone: he's bright, confident, and heroic, and his "Blicket auf!" is stunning. You won't hear a more virile Pater Ecstaticus than Wojtek Drabowicz, nor a steadier, more solidly imposing Pater Profundis than Piotr Nowacki.
But most of the credit has to go to Wit. In a recording that could have turned into a muddle, he energizes his huge forces to give a 100 percent effort. The orchestra plays magnificently. You will hear countless details in the brass section that you haven't heard elsewhere, and the string articulation is worth the price of the disc (listen to the generous portamentos when the tenor sings "Mutter, Königin" in the "Blicket auf!" episode, here taken slowly and with as sensual a feel for sonority as Nagano).
But slow is very much the exception. Wit finds the ideal allegro for the opening movement and never loses sight of it. He drives the double fugue thrillingly to its climax, and most importantly never lets the tension sag in the quieter moments--check out "Infirma nostri corporis" in the first movement to hear how he sustains the pulse when most other versions lose it entirely. There are countless other examples of Wit's sensitivity in this regard: try his thrilling return to tempo primo when the choir reenters with "Accende lumen sensibus" in mid-fugue. Powerful stuff!
The prelude to the second movement has great atmosphere as well as really impressive phrasing from the strings. Later, Wit makes a big and wholly appropriate accelerando into the scherzando eruption of the women's chorus after the Pater Profundis solo, and from then on he keeps the music moving purposefully forward. The three solos for the ladies, and their trio, move along smartly, which makes the glowing appearance of the Mater Gloriosa, perfectly sung by soprano Marta Boberska, all the more evocative.
Instrumental details, such as the mandolin parts before the children's final chorus, and those flecks of harp and celesta that pepper the movement's second half, all register naturally and give the music the shimmer that Mahler intended. Notice how naturally Wit integrates the glittering piccolo solo transition to the Chorus Mysticus: so often it comes across as an independent episode, but here it's a single arch of melody coming to rest in the first notes of the chorus. It's what great Mahler conducting should be.
So, where does this leave us? There are now Mahler Eighths for just about every taste. Bertini is lean and lively, but with amazing codas to each movement. Nagano is lush, even decadent. There are also fine earlier versions from Bernstein (Sony), Tennstedt (EMI), Sinopoli (DG), and Solti (Decca), and an impressive if technically flawed live version from Kubelik (Audite). But if you want to hear a performance that combines the best of just about all of the competing versions and offers the most accurate sense of what the piece really does (or should) sound like live, then this is the way to go. The fact that it's available at budget price is a bonus: you would pay twice as much with pleasure to enjoy an interpretation on this level of excellence. What an extraordinary and delightful surprise! [4/11/2006]
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
Catalog Number: 8550533-34
Composer: Gustav Mahler
Conductor: Antoni Wit
Orchestra/Ensemble: Cracow Polish Radio/TV Chorus, Stefan Wyzynski University Choir, Warsaw Boys' Choir, Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir, Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra
Performer: Barbara Kubiak, Ewa Marciniec, Izabella Klosinska, Jadwiga Rappé, Marta Boberska, Piotr Nowacki, Timothy Bentch, Wojciech Drabowicz