Mahler: Symphony No. 8

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra | Sir Simon Rattle | EMI Records 2008

Known as the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ due to its unusually large scale, Mahler’s work was premiered in Munich in 1910.  The symphony uses eight vocal soloists as well as two full SATB choirs and a children’s choir.  The orchestra is also extended to include an organ, harmonium, piano, harps, celesta and mandolin.

The combination of full choir and orchestra creates a very powerful sound, particularly when combined with the organ.  I quite like this effect, but as a prolonged texture I feel it can be a little muddled; when there is too much going on the parts tend to get in the way of each other.  The symphony is in two main parts, each divided into a large number of short sections based on passages of text from a Latin hymn and Goethe’s Faust.  This structure gives the sense of a story being unfolded, or of a journey of some kind, and the sections featuring solo vocalists are quite operatic in nature.  It doesn’t quite capture my imagination very effectively though, which surprised me as I expected to like this kind of Romantic symphonic music.  I think this is partly due to the texture, and partly because there’s just nothing about the harmonies, melodies or rhythms which particularly grabs me (sorry, Mahler fans!).  The parts I liked the best were those with a thinner texture, such as the Più mosso  in Part 2. Maybe after several listenings I would enjoy it more, but as a newcomer to the work I find it rather meandering.

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