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Mahler's Symphony 8 has been, for me, the least attractive of his ouvre; despite this (and my opinion has been changed by this and two other recent recordings), I am lucky enough to own several recordings of "The Symphony of a Thousand". Right from the outset, I have to say that this Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman RCA recording goes very nearly to the top of the heap for several reasons.

First off, and without meaning to be at all superficial, you can hear the organ! I happen to think that the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman series has been generally very good to (mainly) excellent; I don't at all mind the supposed lack of power in the strings that some have criticized elsewhere. Secondly, the RCA producer and engineers have excelled themselves throught the cycle, and this is very important in this particular symphony, which can sound quite a mess, sonically speaking. Although I have purchased the SACD release (soon to be deleted when the "red book" CD-only box set appears, so I hear, so hurry up if you want the SACDs!), I only listen to two channel stereo, at present. The sound is sparkling, with properly deliniated bass and and no congestion to speak of - the RCA cycle is most likely the best-recorded Mahler set ever. That is an important consideration, for me at least, as Mahler deserves the respect that can only be really given by a good home stereo (or surround) system rather than compressed MP3 on rubbish headphones, for example.

Anyway, back to the performance and a couple of comparisons. Here you will find a fine trio of sopranos (Melanie Diener, Lisa Larrson, & Juliane Banse), two excellent altos (Yvonne Naef & Birgit Remmert), a splendid tenor (Anthony Dean Griffey), baritone (Stephen Powell), and the bass pair sound "just right", too (Ashkar Abdrazakov & the splendidly monikered Alfred Muff). The soloists are backed up expertly by the Schweizer Kammerchor, WDR Rundfunkchor, Zuricher Sangerknaben, and the young voices of the Kinderchor Kaltbrunn. All sing quite beautifully.

No-one need ever feel disappointed by buying this CD/SACD - it's a really tremendous interpretation and a keeper. You should, however, have more than one Mahler 8 on the shelf. Most rave about the old Solti Decca recording Mahler: Symphony No.8, but I loath it - an overblown mess of a performance of a symphony that can sound overblown in the wrong hands anyway. The very well recorded Boulez on DG is worth having Symphony No. 8 : Symphony of a Thousand, but I remain underwhelmed. The Gramophone reviwer lost the plot over the Rattle recording Mahler - Symphony No 8, I just can't hear why this is a good performance, taking a non-partisan view. I like very much Gielen's Hanssler recording Michael Gielen conducts Mahler & Schönberg (where he outdoes Boulez at Boulez's own game); it is an expensive CD set but comes with a terrific recording of Arnold Schoenberg's Die Jakobsleiter. Until 2-3 years ago, this was the recording I turned to when wanting to hear Mahler 8, and I'm quite sure that I'll play it again several times. But the two preferred recordings in my collection nowadays come from the hugely underrated (and horribly savaged by The Gramophone reviewer) Nagano on Harmonia Mundi Mahler - Symphony No 8 and from Antoni Wit on Naxos Mahler: Symphony No. 8 "Symphony of a Thousand". They are very different and the inexpensive Naxos recording is truly fabulous. I think I'm right to say that the lush Nagano set (long unavailable on SACD at sensible prices) has been deleted by Harmonia Mundi due to disappointing sales because of that notorious cloth-eared Gramophone review, so pick one up soon.

So, I now have three preferred recordings of what many say is Mahler's most approachable work - Nagano, Wit, and Zinman. Perhaps surprisingly, these are all recent, beautifully produced, recordings and if you chose one of these you won't go far wrong.

In summary, one of the best recordings and performances of Mahler 8 I have ever heard on CD/SACD and very highly recommended indeed!
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on 16 June 2010
Always a challenge for sound engineers let alone the singers this Mahler 8 is notable for the balance maintained between the choruses and orchestra. Again the RCA engineers have worked their socks off and served both Mahler and Zinman proud. Certainly a piece not to be played too often. It's overall impact is always the stronger the longer the gap there is between hearing it. The performance is very good and is a fitting addition to Zinman's excellent Mahler cycle. Roll on number nine.
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