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Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major
Barbara Haveman (soprano), Orla Boylan (soprano), Christiane Oelze (soprano), Anna Palimina (soprano), Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano), Maria Radner (alto), Brandon Jovanovich (tenor), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone), Günther Groissböck (bass), Mädchen und Knaben der Chöre am Kölner Dom, Oliver Sperling (preparation), Chor des Bach-Vereins Köln, Thomas Neuhoff (preparation), Domkantorei Köln, Winfried Krane (preparation), Kartäuserkantoriei Köln, Philipp Ahmann (preparation), Philharmonischer Chor der Stadt Bonn, Thomas Neuhoff (preparation), Vokalensemble Kölner Dom, Eberhard Metternich (director), Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, Markus Stenz (conductor)
Recorded at Kölner Philharmonie, Köln, Germany (23-27 September, 2011) – 77’01
Oehms Classics OC 653 – Hybrid Super Audio CD with booklet & essays in German and English, text translations in German

Is there a more ideal piece of music to showcase what Multi-channel Super Audio CD can do? Gustav Mahler’s massive opus pushes the sonic limits of home audio reproduction from the most delicate textures to the most thunderous. By my count, there are at least 11 recordings of this work on SACD, a relative feast. Some of them are outstanding, such as the London Symphony Orchestra recording, and many are very good. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised when putting this disc on to find that not only is it beautifully performed, it is fresh and exciting. In a crowded field it is distinguished by Stenz’s leadership and engrossing sonics.

A “Symphony of a Thousand” can become unwieldy with so many performers. While the exact number singing on this release isn’t listed, it’s safe to say it is more than substantial. What jumps out at the listener right away, as the first unmistakable phrase of “Veni creator spiritus” rings out, is not only is this going to be a brisk ride, it’s going to be uniquely precise. The hundreds of singers in the choruses sing with the agility and buoyancy of a chamber choir. Their sound may be too bright and straight for some, but their nimbleness and musical sensitivity more than makes up for it.

The soloists are all more than adequate, no small feat. Barbara Haveman has a lyrical, but powerful soprano instrument. As Magna Peccatrix, her high notes may lose some of her lower voiced roundness, but they are spot-on and thrilling. Her stamina in the first part is impressive. Petra Lang is lacking in some chest voice weight as Mulier Samaritana, but manages to sing with a uniformly beautiful sound. Maria Radner’s alto voice contains more warmth than Lang’s lighter voice, but their voices complement each other nicely and form a nice contrast with Magna Peccatrix in the trio. Christiane Oelze sings with angelic innocence if a bit of breathiness in the sound. Anna Palimina as Mater Gloriosa sings with a slight but secure sound, soaring above the texture. Bass Günther Groissböck tends to snarl a bit too much towards the bottom of his range and has little blossom on the top, but he sings with authority. Hanno Müller-Brachmann sings Pater Ecstaticus with a honeyed, glowing baritone sound. His “Ewiger wonnebrand,” led by Stenz’s swift tempo, is fervent and affecting. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich is the real standout of the group. He sings with shimmering sound and is able to navigate his passaggio in a true head voice that lends an uncommon nobility to the part of Doctor Marianus. But make no mistake, there is plenty of carry and and weight in the voice. His “Blicket auf” is worth the price of admission.

The orchestral playing is wonderfully detailed and able to convey Stenz’s vision quite well. The upper strings shimmer with some lovely playing solos by the concertmaster. Woodwinds are never abrasive. The brass, particularly trombones, are thrilling. They play with a real edge that lends character to the otherwise glossy sound of the orchestra. Most importantly, they all play in one direction. Their commitment to Stenz and this piece is palpable.

Sten’s reading of the piece is really one of the most compelling aspects of this release. Where it is profound, it is done without sanctimony. Where it is exhilarating, it is done without rushing, and boy, is it exhilarating. Stenz builds the climaxes for maximum effect, often with an emphatic “pesante” (as in the soli “Gloria” in the first part) and then boldly jumps into the new section with no one left behind and details intact. In the first part, this makes for a quickly flowing, but shaped, clear sonata-style movement. This becomes even more apparent in the second part. When the tones of “Veni creator spiritus” appear in the brass after Pater Ecstaticus’ “Ewiger wonnebrand,” it is all downhill from there in the best sense.

It gets better: the sound is vivid and amazingly three-dimensional. One feels well-situated in the hall. The solo voices are relatively close, and mapped out left to right on the soundstage, but the orchestral and choral layers of sound are what are really amazing. The different planes of sound between the soloists, orchestra, and choirs are audible and captured stunningly. As if to drive the point home, Mater Gloriosa is clearly heard coming from well above the stage. All of the textures, even the offstage brass (placed in the rear channels), really leap out. The organ pedals are thunderous and employ the subwoofer channel of the sound mix. Out of curiosity, I put on my SACDs of Tilson Thomas, Gergiev, and Zinman conducting this work and found the sound here much more involving.

This piece of music is almost always exciting, no matter what approach the conductor takes, but I must admit to being surprised at just how fresh this recording sounded. Stenz’s vision is invigorating and extremely well executed. Add in the superb sound, and this is something special indeed. This is a must for Mahlerites and audiophiles.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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