There must be many people out there who read glowing reviews of Tennstedt's Mahler recordings and then opt for the EMI box set, thinking they have a bargain: I wonder how many are disappointed. The EMI box is competitively priced but the cycle as a whole is uneven and suffers from indifferent sound. No, for me the seeds of Tennstedt's ever-increasing reputation as a first-rate Mahlerian were sown in his extraordinary concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, especially after his return from serious illness in the late-Eighties. His three performances of the Eighth Symphony in January 1991 - the first of which is recorded here - are now the stuff of legend.
The Eighth is undoubtedly the highlight of Tennstedt's studio cycle - a worthy Gramophone Award winner, and a favourite of mine for many years - but I think it is surpassed in just about every way by this new live recording. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is a new benchmark.
Of the eight soloists, only Trudeliese Schmidt and Hans Sotin are carried over from the studio set. Initially I was disappointed to lose Richard Versalle's excellent Doctor Marianus but I have quickly adjusted to Kenneth Riegel's unusual style of attack and gone on to find a great deal to admire in his portrayal. He consistently hits and sustains the top notes, whether at full throttle or using just his head voice. He may not have the most beautiful tone but it's a thrill to hear the role really attacked and sung with gusto and confidence. The other big surprise is Jadwiga Rappe who - together with Schmidt - brings some real character and colour to the alto parts; many of their rivals struggle to make an impact, I always think. However, this solo team really scores with the sopranos. The endless lung-power of Varady and Eaglen is worth a gold star all on its own! They really open the taps from about halfway through 'Accende...' and the way they (with Riegel) ride the crest of Tennstedt's enormous tidal wave of sound at the return of 'Veni...' is simply jaw-dropping. Eaglen goes on to give us a sublime and youthful Gretchen in Part II. The cherry on top of this rather wonderful cake is a young Susan Bullock, who gives the best Mater Gloriosa I've ever heard. Her short and perilously exposed solo is delivered with a rare surety. They all combine beautifully to give us the most characterful and competent solo team on record, and they are placed further forward than in the studio set so they sound better balanced with the choirs and orchestra: they are always audible.
One criticism often levelled at the studio set is the size of the chorus. Personally, I never had a problem with it but there should be no equivocations with this new recording as the LPO Choir is joined by the LSO Chorus, and what a sound they make! They must have been drilled to within an inch of their lives, and it shows; clear diction, crisp attack and a combined volume that will shake the tiles from your roof. Above all, they sound like they're enjoying every minute - a vital element that's hard to recreate during studio sessions. The Eton boys - whom Tennstedt famously told to sing like football hooligans! - sound like they've been trained by Fagin and, for me, that means they're bang on the money!
I won't go into detail on the orchestral playing. Suffice it to say that Tennstedt and the LPO was one of the great - and, sadly, all too brief - musical partnerships of the Twentieth Century. Care, attention to detail, passion and sincerity colour every bar of their playing. Of the great man himself, well, his way with Mahler in general and the Eighth in particular has always seemed instinctively right to me. This live performance finds him only a touch more expansive than on the studio recording but his vision and sense of musical architecture are as strong as ever. If you're unfamiliar with his style, you may sometimes wonder where he is going at certain points, but then the next passage will make sense of it all and you'll never want to hear it played any other way. He was a magician in the concert hall and the grandeur and spirituality of this performance are both thrilling and moving in equal measure. Like the studio set, it also comes across as deeply personal.
The recording was transferred from a BBC TV tape, rather than a radio tape, and that seems to have added an extra dimension to the sound. I'm hesitating to use the phrase 'surround sound' because that suggests something very specific. Maybe 'cinematic' describes it better. Whatever, the recording seems to have a limitless capacity to allow Mahler's greatest climaxes to expand to really awesome proportions without any loss of inner detail or any sense of distortion, constriction or artificial manipulation. Indeed, this is the closest realisation yet of how this symphony sounds (and feels!) in a concert hall. This is doubly surprising when you consider that it was recorded in the Royal Festival Hall, although its bass-heavy acoustic response does pay dividends by allowing the organ's floor-shuddering pedal notes to register brilliantly.
For a live performance, I've noticed barely a handful of tiny fluffs. Personally, I couldn't give a monkey's, and if you let this deter your purchase of this electrifying recording then it is only your loss. I know which of my recordings of the Eighth will get the most play from now on.
A live Resurrection last year; a live Eighth this year... How lucky we are!