I'm late again, dear reader. (Singular?) I got run over pretty hard by the despair train this week, what with school starting and the stark realization that I've got four people worth of homework to parse every night, including my own, which I just turned in. (A good hour early, I might add!) But in order to get myself off of my own self-pitying behind, what better task than a quick blog post?
And as if by providence, a box appeared in the mail yesterday. I love getting boxes in the mail; it's one of my major addictions, up there with classical music cds, anime dvds, and playing trombone really loud. In the box was a cd I've been waiting for for two whole years: the San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas recording of Mahler's Eighth Symphony.
This is the last symphony in the cycle to be released. There is still a recording of the Songs of a Wayfarer and the Ruckertlieder due, which I will commence waiting for now, but this covers the nine symphonies, and includes the adagio from the abortive Tenth. I love the cycle, from the ground up: the understated cover designs, the simple yet gorgeous cds themselves, the extensive booklets that actually (get this) include the names of the musicians that performed. (It is a personal pet peeve that cd booklets rarely include the orchestra, and I have to do extensive internet searches to dig up the name of the oboe player in the Seattle Symphony in 1986 to find out who did such a nice job on that solo.) There is also a wonderful picture of the assembled armies necessary to perform the piece: it is called "The Symphony of 1,000", and it's only slightly facetious.
But while the accouterments are nice, I still don't buy cds (especially at $30 a pop) because they look nice. And this series doesn't just look nice, they sound fantastic. There are a number of Mahler cycles in progress right now, such as the Valery Gergiev/London Symphony, and my own Pittsburgh Symphony is recording a cycle with new music director Manfred Honeck. Of these, Tilson Thomas and San Francisco absolutely set the standard for consistency in high quality musicianship and interpretation. The soloists are impeccable, crisp and clear at all points, brought to the front of the orchestra to stand out as they should. This is, believe it or not, a problem in some recordings of Mahler 8, where trying to record that sheer mass of musicians leads to compromises that diminish the efforts of a handful of critical parts. The balance between the choirs and the orchestra are maintained as required throughout, showing Tilson Thomas's habitual sensitivity to the line and to parity among voices. The opening of the symphony, a dramatic interplay between organ, orchestra, and chorus, is forceful and immediately present, setting the tone for the remainder of the work, with the opening "Veni, creator spiritus!" declared with conviction that would certainly draw out any self-respecting muse.
Of the several recordings of Mahler 8 in my collection, between the sound quality and excellent performance, this one is almost certainly the new favorite, continuing (if not concluding!) the standard of excellence laid out previously by conductor and ensemble. And now I will start eagerly waiting for the (presumptive!) final cd in the cycle!