Mahler: Symphony No. 8 (Thierry Fischer, Utah Symphony)
Reference Recordings

To paraphrase George Orwell, all Mahler symphonies are unique, but some are more unique than others. From the oft-sunny fourth to the so-called “Tragic” sixth, each of his nine symphonies—ten, if you include the one completed by Deryck Cooke a half-century after the composer's death—individuates itself from the others. Yet none distances itself more than the Symphony No. 8, also known, quite rightly, as the “Symphony of a Thousand.” Vocal parts appear in many of the others but never as dominantly as they do in the eighth, the Mahler symphony that comes closest in spirit to an oratorio and even opera. Yet while it does separate itself dramatically from the others, it is indelibly a Mahler creation, and audio evidence of its connection to others repeatedly asserts itself. Melodies characteristic of the composer are abundant, and the material exudes an emotional sweep on par with anything else in his oeuvre.

Upon completing the draft of the symphony in 1906, Mahler stated in writing to conductor William Mengelberg, “All my other symphonies are but preludes to this one.” The Munich audience at the work's premiere on September 12, 1910 apparently agreed, given the reportedly rapturous reception concertgoers gave it on what has been described as the high point, creatively and emotionally, of Mahler's life. The resources used to stage this recent version, recorded live in February 2016, are staggering. Besides the Utah Symphony and its Music Director Thierry Fischer, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the choristers of The Madeleine Choir School, eight vocal soloists—three sopranos (Orla Boylan, Celena Shafer, Amy Owens), two mezzo-sopranos (Charlotte Hellekant, Tamara Mumford), and a tenor (Barry Banks), baritone (Markus Werba), and bass (Jordan Bisch)—contribute. The sheer magnitude of participants involved helps brand the eighth as something of an outlier in the Mahler universe, even if others, such as the second and third, also require huge resources for their presentation.

How valuable is this recording? Great indeed, considering how modest in number are those available of the eighth and relatedly how rarely it's performed. In both cases, the reasons have nothing to do with the work's artistic merit, which is substantial; it's simply that performances, whether it be for a live presentation or for a recording, are immense productions and thus costly in the extreme. Put simply, when the opportunity arises to witness the eighth performed live, do whatever it takes to attend, given the rarity of the occasion.

It's an unusual work in other respects, too. Structurally, it eschews the standard four- or five-movement structure of many a Mahler symphony for a two-part design, each of which holds up as a distinct creation (interestingly, the original plan for the symphony had it structured with two vocal and two instrumental movements, but the latter were eventually omitted). With respect to the extraordinary first part, set to the Latin medieval hymn to the Holy Ghost, Veni, Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit), no other Mahler movement sustains itself at a fortissimo pitch as much as this one, with this recording's twenty-two-minute opening often ecstatic in delivery, its presentation consistent with the text's impassioned plea for divine grace (“Light the light of our senses, pour love into our hearts”); it also wastes no time rising to that level, with the emphatic organ chords that inaugurate it followed seconds later by the choir's loud vocalizations and the soloists' intertwined expressions. At the same time, quieter passages also appear, the lyrical interlude that follows the introductory section a particularly memorable instance.

The hour-long second part, its German text derived from Goethe's Faust, is more conventionally Mahler-like in presentation, featuring as it does multiple dynamic contrasts and a plentiful share of prototypical melodies. Though Goethe's text is generally associated with the human's desperate hunger for knowledge, Mahler's text derives from the final scene in the work's second part where the action moves from earth to heaven and the focus shifts to the redemptive power of love. Commentators often describe the eighth as a work where vocals appear all the way through, but that's not entirely accurate: the second part begins with a remarkably evocative instrumental section in slow march time whose stirring blend of woodwinds, strings, and horns eventually blossoms into a full, vocal-rich presentation. During that introductory passage, the tempo is slow and the material somewhat mysterious in character, until the men of the choir emerge with near-whispered utterances. Five minutes later, the first soloist, the baritone (as Pater Ecstaticus), appears, and then the bass (as Pater Profundis), followed by women's voices as a choir of angels and then another choir personifying blessed boys. As the instrumental design grows ever more celestial, the female soloists appear in successive arias and then a trio, the rapturous music slowly ascending upwards until the pianissimo expressions of the Chorus Mysticus build to one final fortissimo, a triumphant roar in E-flat.

Under Fischer's direction, the Utah Symphony gives a performance that brings certain aspects of the work into sharp relief. As I listen, for example, to the second part's “Ewiger Wonnebrand” (Eternal burning brand) section, the distance between the eighth and Schoenberg's Gurrelieder begins to seem small indeed, and the strings during the choir's “Dir, der Unberührbaren” (To you, the immaculate) episode not only look back to the fifth's “Adagietto,” they also anticipate the majestic slow movements in the ninth; don't be surprised either if certain melodic figures remind you of Mahler's fourth. While no recording can equal the impact of the Symphony No. 8 performed live, the Utah Symphony certainly captures the intense visceral power and thrilling majesty of Mahler's creation, so much so that this authoritative interpretation feels like the next best thing to hearing it in person.

February 2018