Nézet-Séguin’s Dehydrated Mahler 8th

Review by: Victor Carr Jr


Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 4

It doesn’t bode well for a recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 when the first sounds you hear make you immediately want to stop the playback. Those who know and love the classic Bernstein/London Symphony version on Sony have long tolerated the somewhat gimmicky multi-miked and occasionally distorted recording as being worth it for the conductor’s electrifying and transcendent performance. But even that 50-year-old sound is preferable to what DG has given us for this release, made with supposedly “modern” technology. Mahler’s great opening peroration sounds at once harsh and hollow, paradoxically arid and over-reverberant, yet frustratingly low-level.

Cranking the volume gives the sound more body but exposes the recording’s limited dynamic range. (It sounds more like a radio broadcast recording than a studio production.) It also confirms the rather facile quality of Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conducting, with its brisk tempos and overall light touch (soft-edged sonorities and gentle accents), leaving his rendition totally devoid of the grandeur, sense of occasion, and emotional intensity and commitment of Bernstein or, say, Tennstedt. Yes, those two conductors ignore Mahler’s instructions by dramatically slowing the tempo in the great buildup to the first-movement recapitulation, but what an effect they create! (Note: Mahler’s way works too, as evidenced by Chailly in his Concertgebouw recording.) Nézet-Séguin? He just breezes through this passage as if he’s hoping the wind won’t muss his hair.

Part II’s overall blandness makes it seem much longer than it actually is, with the choral forces sounding uninspired (even the children!) under Nézet-Séguin’s direction. The soloists are generally excellent, save for the shaky tenor of Anthony Dean Griffey. When it’s not drowned out by the chorus, the Philadelphia Orchestra sounds its usual, professional self, with particularly strong playing by the trombones and strings. But it goes for naught here.

There was a time when Mahler Eighth recordings were considered special events. This one? Not even close. Go for the listed alternatives to hear what all the excitement was about.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Bernstein (DG/Sony); Tennstedt (EMI/LPO); Wit (Naxos)

  • Angela Meade, Erin Wall, Lisette Oropesa (soprano); Elizabeth Bishop, Mihoko Fujimura (mezzo-soprano); Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor); Markus Werba (baritone); John Relyea (bass)
  • Westminster Symphonic Choir, Choral Arts Society of Washington, American Boychoir, Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Share This Review: