Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 8
Tamara Wilson (soprano 1), Leah Crocetto (soprano 2), Erin Morley (soprano 3), Mihoko Fujimura (alto 1), Tamara Mumford (alto 2), Simon O’Neill (tenor), Ryan McKinny (baritone), Morris Robinson (bass), Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon (artistic director), Pacific Chorale, Robert Istad (artistic director), Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz (artistic director), National Children’s Chorus, Luke McEndarfer (artistic director), Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)
Recording: Disney Hall, Los Angeles, California (June 2, 2019) – 75’32”
Deutsche Grammophon 00173 – (Distributed by Universal Music)
Being able to revisit a live performance is a rare treat and one that is hopefully an affirming one. Deutsche Grammophon and the LA Phil have released a recording of Gustavo Dudamel conducting Mahler’s mammoth Symphony No. 8 from a series of live performances in May 2019 (what seems like a lifetime ago). It was a thrilling performance, details of which can be seen in my review here.
Seeing a performance in Disney Hall is its own sort of surround sound experience. This recording, timed with a slew of re-releases from DG, utilizes the new Dolby Atmos technology, providing an immersive spatial experience virtually regardless of speaker configuration. It is a game-changing achievement. To be sure, it helps to have performing forces of this caliber.
This is an exceptional reading of the Mahler that should be in every connoisseur’s collection. In listening to the recording and re-reading my review, the quality of the performance has been confirmed for me. The soloists are universally excellent, even more so finely balanced with each other. The thunderous bass of Morris Robinson is indeed a sonority to behold in one’s listening room. The combined choruses of the LA Master Chorale and the Pacific Chorale are always on point with a fervent agility given their size. Diction is excellent, attacks clean, and dynamic expression exceptional. The LA Phil play brilliantly. While the strings occasionally lacked warmth (understandable given the frenetic pace) it is a performance that is summarily tackled and thoroughly dispatched with ease.
This is not to say it is passionless. Dudamel’s instincts with this score are instinctive. The speed is universally swift but it is appropriate. The surging course of the first part never seems harried but is exciting from beginning to end. Dudamel, whom I’ve criticized before for sometimes dawdling, does not do so in the second part here. Pacing at the hushed opening of the second part seems just right, spacious, while morphing into the Ryan McKinny’s gorgeous “Ewiger Wonnebrand.” It is a reading that just seems natural, without artifice, and that is to Dudamel’s credit. The band complies with outstanding results.
To the sound: I listened on my AppleTV using lossless Apple Music and Dolby Atmos to my Onkyo receiver in a 5.1 setup. As a longtime enthusiast of surround sound, this was another level of listening nirvana. The layers of space that could be heard re-created in my room were astonishing. Not only could the precise locations of the forces not be clearer (for instance when two male soloists were singing with the orchestra and chorus) but the clarity in dynamics between all of the simultaneous forces helped create as vivid a sonority as I’ve heard in something like this. I could absolutely picture where Mater Gloriosa was placed in the hall, above the orchestra and chorus. The clarity of solo instruments and the complexity of attack and decay (such as in the cymbal brushes of the second part) are stunning in fidelity. The use of rear channels (in the performance, additional brass for the climaxes of the first and second part were in the balcony) sounds much more natural and amorphous than traditional surround mixes I’ve heard. It is a surround experience that is not gimmicky.
If anything, the recording sounded too good. There were details I’ve never heard as clearly (even in live performance), such as the hammered dulcimer in the second part which sounded like it was in my listening room. The balance between forces is never an issue. Bass from the thunderous organ and others was never lacking. Sounding “too good” is quite the problem to have in a recording.
The orchestra could have played quieter at several instances. Given how dynamic the chorus is in this recording I think that can be on Dudamel. This is not only an excellent performance but an outstanding achievement in recording. Minor quibbles: gapless listening in Atmos/Lossless on AppleTV doesn’t seem to be there yet and there are no program notes or translations anywhere to be found in downloads or elsewhere. Oh, and can we get more exciting cover art, please? In any case, check this out and enjoy your visit to Disney Hall from the comfort of your listening room.
Matthew Richard Martinez