Although there are a half-dozen or so listings of Mahler Eighths by Klaus Tennstedt, he appears to have recorded the symphony twice, in 1986 and 1991. This latter effort, a live concert performance from Royal Festival Hall, on January 27, is the one under review. There is a DVD video performance of it as well available on EMI. The later account, released here on the London Philharmonic Orchestra label, is a bit more expansive than the earlier effort (87:01 vs. about 82:30) and offers slightly better sound.
Tennstedt, who recorded all nine Mahler symphonies to great acclaim, was not just an effective conductor in Mahler, but also in Bruckner, Wagner, Richard Strauss and (surprisingly to me) Prokofiev. This is a powerful Eighth. Tennstedt draws superb singing from the chorus throughout: try the ending of the first movement (Gloria Patri Domino) and listen to the energy and spirit of the various choral groups, as well as that of the soloists. The boys' chorus in Hände verschlinget euch and Er überwächst uns schon is utterly splendid, as they seem to sing with the maturity and vitality of seasoned vocalists.
The other choir sections turn in fine work too: the Younger Angels sing with such beauty and commitment in both Jene Rosen aus den Händen and Ich spür' soeben. The closing section, Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis, is sung by all with a sort of reverential ecstasy that lifts the listener right up to the heavens.
I've said little about the soloists so far, but they too are excellent: Julia Varady, Jane Eaglen, Kenneth Riegel and Hans Sotin head a fine cast to rival most others in this work. If one were to select a recording strictly on the basis of the soloists and chorus, the Robert Shaw/Telarc, with Deborah Voigt, would be hard to beat, but interpretively and in orchestral quality that effort falls a bit short.
Tennstedt is a master of the orchestra, on the other hand. He makes the orchestral prelude that opens Part 2, Final Scene from Goethe's Faust, for once a truly atmospheric and effective piece: the music here is fraught with tension and builds in mystery, offering strong contrast to the surrounding big choral numbers. Tennstedt demonstrates that he knows how to make the music in this very subdued section come to life, music that can sound almost pedestrian in the hands of a lesser conductor. While his slower tempo in the return of the Veni, Creator Spiritus may not work so well, his overall use of tempo shifts, dynamics and phrasing in general is nearly always well imagined and effective.
Who has the best Mahler Eighth? The first Bernstein (Sony) is compelling in many ways, but its sound is a bit dated; Wit (Naxos), recorded in 2005, is excellent in most respects, as are Solti (Decca) and Sinopoli (DG). If I had to pick winners here, I would take Bernstein, Wit, and this 1991 Tennstedt effort.
Copyright © 2011, Robert Cummings.