I would love to say that this new MTT/SFSO Mahler 8 sweeps every other one out to the dust bin, but it simply doesn't. Thus, I was also hoping that we could all finally forget the overly touted Solti one, once and for all. But Solti remains strong at precisely what Tilson Thomas is so clearly deficient at: acknowledgment that the pipe organ plays an important and integral part in this symphony (Mahler writes fortissimo, with the added words "volles werke" - the complete works), along with a willingness to allow what Mahler has composed - particularly in Part II - to speak for itself. Let me elaborate.
This recording comes from the fourth go-around of Mahler 8 since MTT's tenure in San Francisco. It was originally going to be recorded several seasons ago, but there was universal displeasure with the cast involved at that time. I first saw Tilson Thomas perform M8 at Davies Hall in 1998. That performance was outstanding, with MTT giving us a very straight forward, no-nonsense rendition that incorporated plenty of organ at the end of both parts. I own a burn-job of that performance, taken off of the radio, so my imagination is not fooling me here. Then I saw him do it again in 2001 or 2002, and it wasn't nearly so good. Already, MTT was beginning to intervene in spots where it simply wasn't necessary to do so. In addition, the ending to Part II was curiously flat in comparison to the earlier 1998 one - a performance in which pretty much everybody in the house went bonkers over.
Let me just say that I'm glad that I missed this latest go-around, for MTT's Part II is loaded with massive ritardandos (slow downs) and several gratuitous, totally unsolicited pauses. The worst of these occurs after the tenor's first big solo. After one of MTT's massive ritards, there's a pause that lasts a solid five seconds before going on to the next section: the soft passage for unison violins, harps, and harmonium (chamber ogan), later to be joined softly by the chorus. That particular passage is played sooooo slowly, and sooooo softly, that it's actually difficult to make out the melody (an important melody that gets used again during the three penitent women section). Each harp "pluck" becomes a symphony on to itself. Hey, are we listening here to Gustav Mahler, or Anton Webern?
That's the worst of it, but there's more. Don't like the tempo you're hearing? Just wait a few a few bars, and Tilson Thomas will cross one that's more to your liking. Just take the orchestral introduction to Part II. The first Wagnerian outburst is played relatively slowly, but with sufficient intensity from the strings and horns. The second Wagnerian outburst explodes through the gate like gangbusters, only to be followed by more massive ritardandos. It's all rather dramatic, I suppose, but it's also somewhat incoherent.
All of these big ritards and gratuitous pauses lead one to think that we're in for one heck of a big ending to this symphony, but it's simply not there. To my ears, it sounds as though the ending to Part II may have had a separate studio take. There's very little pipe organ, and the offstage trumpets sound too close to the onstage brass. Everything is a bit too tidy and clean sounding; too controlled. The final sustained chord isn't held nearly long enough, and MTT ends with a very sharp, very clean cutoff to the final note. Compare this to Kent Nagano, who gives us a rather appropriate sounding, long, "mushy" kind of final note. Or, even more extreme, listen to the four seconds of reverberation that was captured on the recent Gergiev M8 (St. Paul's Cathedral). So, why the sudden hurry to end everything?
The end of Part I? . . it has a similar problem as well. MTT is truly in a big hurry here, and it ends up sounding like a scrambled mess. The offstage trumpet parts are audible (not so the trombones, though), but it's all rather rushed sounding. Too bad, because nearly all of Part I is very good indeed (for dramatic effect, MTT puts a hold on the second "Veni" that's sung at the movement's recapitulation - the climax of the big double fugue).
All of my whining is unfortunate because there's absolutely nothing to complain about in terms of orchestral execution, or with the singing from the various choral forces employed. Even the cast of soloists is one of the most solid ones to have appeared in a long, long time. In general, the women are better than the men. Soprano Elza van den Heever does an outstanding job with Gretchen's key solo towards the end of Part II, leading the redeemed Faust into the blinding light of a new day. Soprano Laura Claycomb then does a nice job with the short but ethereal sounding offstage part that follows (Mater Glorioso). Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey does a decent job of wrestling with his two difficult solos, but neither does he erase memories of Rene Kollo (Solti), Ben Heppner (Colin Davis; Chailly), or - best of all - Richard Leech (Maazel). Baritone Quinn Kelsey possesses a tad too much vibrato for my liking, and bass-baritone James Morris sounds a bit tattered on the edges, if also appropriately "Wotan" like. Still, these men are good enough to get the job done. All of the women are very good during the penitent women passage towards the end of Part II, and there's plenty of mandolin where that particular novelty makes its appearance to support them.
As for the recorded sound, it's excellent during softer passages (except that the above mentioned passage is simply too soft), but the major climaxes to the symphony simply don't come off. The end of the "Gloria" that concludes Part I has almost enough organ, but MTT's rapid tempo turns it into mush from a purely sonic standpoint (Rattle did the same thing, so he's not alone). On the other hand, the end of Part II just doesn't expand enough as Mahler adds more and more terraced layers to the texture. I believe that's greatly because there simply isn't anywhere near enough organ in the works, but everything else sounds a bit too clean and controlled as well. Think I'm exaggerating? Play the very last track on the Gary Bertini Mahler 8 (EMI), and you'll hear a world of difference. And while the dynamics on the noisy Solti recording don't expand nearly enough either - simply because it's a 35 year old recording! - at least those concluding textures are saturated with plenty of organ sound. By the way, the Adagio to the 10th symphony is a nearly 28 minute schlag-fest that borders on becoming a snoozefest. It certainly seems to add little to the rest of the package.
In conclusion, I wish that I could be 100% enthusiastic about this release. I really want to be, for a number of reasons! But once again, MTT feels that he has to intervene where he's simply not invited to. I believe that he takes his cue from Leonard Bernstein. He said that regardless of ALL of the indications that Mahler puts into his scores, they're simply not enough. But I believe that throughout this admirable and highly ambitious, self-produced Mahler cycle, MTT has frequently undermined the results by going waaaay beyond Bernstein's comment. Just for comparison's sake, take out the 1966 Bernstein/LSO Mahler 8, and play it back-to-back with this one. I seriously think that there are spots where MTT's conducting would make Bernstein's hair stand on edge. I guess I won't be throwing out that burn-job from 1998 anytime soon.