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Hyperion Records

LSO0669 - Mahler: Symphony No 8

Recording details: July 2008
St Paul's Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Produced by James Mallinson
Engineered by Jonathan Stokes
Release date: April 2009
Total duration: 77 minutes 7 seconds

'Magnetic and compelling ... brilliantly and subtly animated choral singing injects a sense of bleak mystery and awe. It’s the kind of performance you instantly wish you had witnessed, but this vivid and momentous recording takes you 99 per cent of the way there' (The Scotsman)

'Mahler’s mightiest symphony, with its huge orchestral forces and massive choral utterances, emerges with all the overwhelming sonic power the score demands ... its potent blend of spirituality and theatricality makes it a powerful contender for top honors amid a crowded field' (Chicago Tribune)

Symphony No 8

Mahler’s monumental Symphony No 8 is, unusually for a symphony, structured in two-parts. Part I’s exuberant hymn of praise to the creator spirit precedes a reading of the Final Scene from Goethe’s Faust, portraying 'Faust’s redemption through wisdom and love'. The use of choirs throughout the work, combined with the colossal forces of eight soloists, off-stage brass, and an expanded orchestra, make this a work of epic proportions.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Mahler went so far as to say that he regarded his Eighth Symphony as ‘a gift to the whole nation’. Coming after the purely instrumental symphonies Nos 5, 6, and 7, it is a reversion to the cantata-inspired Nos 2 and 3. Mahler originally planned a four-movement work with movements called 1. Veni, creator spiritus; 2. Caritas; 3. Scherzo: Christmas games with the Christ Child; 4. Creation through Eros (Hymn). The scherzo was to incorporate two Wunderhorn songs. The musical sketches associated with this scheme include no words, although the opening theme is articulated to fit the words ‘Veni, creator spiritus’. It is not known when he abandoned this plan in favour of the existing two-part symphony, but ‘Creation through Eros’ found fulfilment in the Faust setting. Mahler’s claim that he composed the whole work in eight weeks needs to be modified in the knowledge that themes were already extant when he went to Maiernigg on holiday in 1906 and was so seized by creative energy – “like a lightning vision” – that he composed the first movement to what he could remember of the anonymous text of the old hymn Veni, creator spiritus. When he sent for the authentic text, he was delighted to discover he needed to make few adjustments.

He dedicated the symphony to his wife Alma at a time when their marriage was undergoing difficulties, to say the least. Although completed in 1906, it was not performed until 1910 when two performances were given on 12 and 13 September in Hall I of the 1908 Munich Exhibition site. The manager of a concert agency described it as the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (without Mahler’s approval) because this was the number of performers involved. Mahler had only eight months to live and these were the last times he conducted in Europe. The performances were triumphs and the audiences included royalty and many of Europe’s most distinguished artistic celebrities.

Part I, Allegro impetuoso, is a reminder in its vast polyphony that Mahler had been making a close study of J.S. Bach because ‘my natural way of writing is Bach-like’. A chord of E flat on organ, woodwind, and lower strings heralds the choir’s exultant cry of “Veni”. Three important themes occur in rapid succession: repeated chords for the chorus on “Spiritus”, a trombone motif, and a rising sequence for trumpets. The strings also have an impulsive theme in B flat. After this tumultuous exordium at last sinks to pianissimo, four soloists are heard in the beautiful D flat second subject at the words “Imple superna gratia”. Development of this and some new material by the orchestra and eight soloists leads to the climactic “Accende lumen sensibus”, sung to a new theme which will return in Part II. A double fugue launches the recapitulation and a final ecstatic “Gloria”.

Part II opens with a long orchestral prelude in E flat minor which illustrates the wild landscape, with holy anchorites sheltering in rocky clefts, in which Goethe set Faust’s symbolic transfiguration. Over a steady pizzicato, the “Accende” theme is explored anew, particularly its three consecutive rising notes. Two themes dominate this section, and indeed the whole movement, the first a prayer-like motif, the second a ‘yearning’ melody on flutes and clarinets. The chorus enters quietly and mysteriously. Pater ecstaticus (baritone) sings of the agony and ecstasy of love (‘Eros’) – ‘Eternal passion of delight … seething agony of the breast’ – and Pater profundus (bass) employs the imagery of Nature to describe love. The “Accende” theme is prominent on trumpets and horns. His plea for enlightenment (Erleuchte) is answered by a chorus of Angels and of boys’ voices – their participation is what remains of the ‘Christmas Games’ scherzo (Mahler regarded children as ‘vessels for the most wonderful practical wisdom’).

A symbolic reference to roses’ power to combat evil introduces a new theme for the Younger Angels and a contemplative mood, with obbligati for violin and viola. Doctor Marianus (tenor) and the children’s choir rapturously address the Virgin Mary (Mater gloriosa) as “Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinne” (“Virgin, pure in the fairest sense”), the signal for a new theme for violins – adagissimo vibrando – over an E major chord for harp and harmonium. The music now becomes increasingly tender as the Penitents – Magna peccatrix (soprano), Mulier Samaritana (contralto) and Maria Aegyptiaca (contralto) – plead for forgiveness. Eventually the Virgin herself (soprano) sings, Doctor Marianus urges “all creatures frail and contrite” to look up to “the redeeming gaze”, and the rapturous final Chorus mysticus implores the Eternal Feminine (“das Ewig-Weibliche”) to draw mankind towards heaven. In an instrumental coda, the “Veni, creator spiritus” theme returns. The final effect is best described by Mahler: ‘Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound’.

Michael Kennedy © 2008

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