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.