Tilson Thomas' disappointing SACD Mahler cycle ends with an appropriately disappointing Eighth Symphony.
The opening bars offer much promise; a rich, resplendent organ chord followed by a crisp but powerful `Veni, creator spiritus' from the choir. It continues well enough for much of Part I, albeit with a nagging doubt that the choir is going to be too small for the really big coup de theatre moments. The solo line-up is nicely balanced, both within themselves and in relation to the wider sound picture and there is some hypnotically beautiful orchestral playing.
However, when we get to `Accende lumen sensibus' things start to unravel. First of all, Tilson Thomas makes the mother of all pauses between the `A...' and the `...ccende' for no good reason at all and this is indicative of some curiously hesitant moments to come in Part II. If it was conceived as a trick to increase the tension here then it backfires. The choir remains strong in unison although as soon as they split into eight parts they lack the numbers within their parts to maintain the volume, and the mixed children's chorus is too sweet-toned and pure to really punch through the layers of sound; a boys' chorus is always more effective here. There is also a total absence of organ sound which is strange considering the impact it makes in the opening bar. Either the instrument was reined in to avoid it swamping the choir or it is hidden somewhere in one of the SACD channels which would be a curious production decision considering relatively few people have adopted the technology. The closing `Gloria' lacks the euphoric thrill of the best recordings, despite a fast tempo, although the sound handles the choral and orchestral expansion well.
The first twenty minutes or so of Part II make for difficult listening. The long orchestral prelude can seem like an anti-climactic hiatus in the wrong hands, and Tilson Thomas is most definitely `the wrong hands'! His tempo is too slow and flaccid and his orchestra too light of tone to really project the craggy landscape of this music and set the scene for what follows. Listen to Tennstedt or Rattle on EMI or Bernstein on Sony and you'll quickly realise what Tilson Thomas lacks. The Anchorites' Chorus makes matters worse by attempting to phrase their words rather than employing a stark, harsh, monosyllabic delivery; this team just cannot resist blunting Mahler's sharp edges.
The solo line-up comes in for much closer scrutiny here also and a clear divide emerges between the ladies and the men. I have seen Quinn Kelsey's Pater Ecstaticus described elsewhere as `the best on record'; he is certainly not that (he's no match for Abbado's Bryn Terfel, to name just one) but he is very good and the pick of the men, I think. James Morris's Pater Profundus is a massive disappointment. His timbre is too dry and baritonal to sound `profound' and his uncomfortably wide vibrato tends towards the ragged. His final, strained lines sound especially uncomfortable, I have to say. Anthony Dean Griffey's Doctor Marianus is satisfactory (but nothing more) if you can live with his unusual vowels and the often pronounced beat in his voice. On the other hand, all of the ladies are amongst the best assembled on record and they combine beautifully.
It is Tilson Thomas' fussy conducting that really ruins the second part, however; too many unnecessary ritardandos, pauses and slow tempos. There is a pause of a good four or five seconds after the tenor's first solo that had me glancing at my CD player to check the disc was still running. He then takes an incredibly slow tempo for the harps' first entry, continuing into the `Dir, der Unberuhrbaren' chorus; the words almost unintelligible at this speed. He picks up the pace a little more by Mater Gloriosa's entry, if only to give the excellent Laura Claycomb a fighting chance of getting through it without breathing apparatus. By the time we get to the final chorus, it is quite clear that Tilson Thomas doesn't really have an overarching view of this work or a basic tempo running through it, against which he could have applied his rubato more successfully; he is just too short-sighted and episodic. This same structural weakness torpedoed his recording of the Second Symphony and the same happens here. He doesn't seem to know whether to go for a brisker, leaner apotheosis, like Rattle, or a grander, broader, more romantic one, like Abbado or Tennstedt. In the end, he falls between two stools and the symphony remains earthbound.
I have yet to find a recording of this symphony which doesn't require a degree of compromise on the listener's part, but this new one just goes too far and it is not one I wish to return to in any great hurry. My top five recordings of this work therefore remain unchallenged: Tennstedt (coupled with a pleasant recording of the Fourth Symphony on EMI Mahler - Symphonies Nos 4 and 8
); Bertini (as part of an exceptionally consistent, well-recorded and bargain-priced box set on EMI Mahler - Complete Symphonies
); Abbado (rather pricey though, on DG Mahler: Symphony No.8
); Rattle (with a great cast but slightly dry sound on EMI Mahler: Symphony No. 8
); and Bernstein (the classic 1966 recording coupled with Janet Baker's Kindertotenlieder on Sony Mahler: Symphony No.8/Kindertotenlieder
At the conclusion of this San Francisco cycle, I am left wondering why they bothered to undertake this project at all. This orchestra, at least in Tilson Thomas' hands, shows little affinity with Mahler's idiom and the conductor seems afraid to unleash the full expressive power of the music. However hard Tilson Thomas tries, he is no Bernstein, and if this is the best of him then it is just not good enough to compete. Too much of this series has been woefully bland and underplayed, and defaced by some occasionally awful conducting. The first complete SACD Mahler cycle could have been something special but this one is almost entirely forgettable. I would encourage anybody who is more interested in musical fidelity than sonic fidelity to avoid it.