I approached this disc with some trepidation, but curiosity, and my obsession with owning every recording of the Eighth ever made, got the better of me. I heard Gergiev conduct Mahler VIII in Amsterdam a few years ago, a performance that through a combination of under-rehearsal, esoteric conducting and a last-minute tenor replacement skirted along the brink of disaster. His Mahler efforts in London, as far as I've heard them (numbers 2, 6 and 7), I also found distinctly underwhelming. And while St. Paul's no doubt makes for a spectacular setting, it is pretty obvious that acoustically it will pose severe problems for recording technicians.
Fortunately I found my hesitations only partly justified, though I am still baffled by all the exorbitant praise heaped on this recording. Haven't people listened to great recordings of this work such as Rattle, Tennstedt or Sinopoli gave us, recordings that on top of their artistic merits offer the benefit of expert engineering? In comparison, Gergiev's reading suffers significantly, and while it has its redeeming features I would hardly call it a touchstone recording.
If the first movement leaves me deeply dissatisfied, I am well aware that this is entirely due to the failure of the recording technicians to meet both Mahler's excessive demands and the imponderables of this particular venue. The movement sets off with a fuzzy, underpowered organ (excentrically placed to the right, not an ideal situation as the Abbado recording already made clear), after which fuzzy choruses without any sense of attack start up the Veni creator. While the massed singers remain in an indistinct background, shrill close-up violins jump out at the listener. The overwhelming reverberation turns the music to mush, and given maestro Gergiev's peculiar conducting technique it is no wonder that several passages, the Infirma for one, are not together. Despite all this misery we can just make out that the cast of solo singers is in fact quite good. But the weird perspectives, the lack of dynamic expansion, the lack of detail, the thin, at times almost amateurish strings, and the general bleariness of the sound (only occasionally ruptured by unpleasantly strident trumpets) make this one of the most uninvolving Veni creators I've ever come across. Even the splendid Gloria coda goes nowhere; the fabulous horn sequence that introduces it is barely audible, the players sound so distant as if they are out on the street; and when the polyphonic ecstasy reaches its culmination the acoustics of the venue ensure that no sense can be made of it at all.
Part II, however, fares much better. In fact, the cavernous cathedral acoustics that threw a spanner in the works in Part I now become something of a boon. First there is a very atmospheric introduction where finally we get to hear that it is actually a great orchestra that is playing. Then, when the hermits echo-chorus comes in, St. Paul's creates a nice halo of reverberation that is highly suggestive of the mountainous regions Goethe envisioned here. The effect is quite spell-binding.
The solo singers are placed in a natural perspective, and the baritone (Pater Ecstaticus) has a most pleasing voice, even though his rendering is a tad too relaxed for my taste. Incidentally, this is one of the passages where Gergiev's laudable left- right division of first and second fiddles results in some scintillating dialogue. Pater Profundus sounds rather matter-of-fact and one or two times his intonation seems a bit doubtful. However, the subsequent angelic choruses will erase any frown; the children's chorus is delightfully feisty and sings with a lovely, slightly uncultivated edge to their sound. The crucial tenor soloist is certainly up to his task, though he sounds a tad strained on top. It is a pity though that there are some weird aberrations in his German diction (Gehimniss instead of Geheimniss, and something like Mudier instead of Mutter). Gretchen too is feelingly sung, though the effect of her solo is somewhat marred when at the end of it horns and trumpets get out of sync. Mater Gloriosa floats somewhere in ethereal distances - again St. Paul's is put to good use here. And while the tenor doesn't sound particularly ecstatic at `Blicket auf', the ensuing mysterious, dissonant climax before the final chorus is most effective. The hushed chorus itself, too, is beautifully realized, and blooms into a mighty climax, with powerfully present organ - it makes one wonder why this sound has eluded the technicians in part one.
In all this Eighth is a very mixed bag that may well be of interest to those enamoured of this work, but would not make a very obvious `library' choice for those seeking just one version.