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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 29 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 35
Capturing a musical monster - Mahler's 8th Symphony
Arts & Entertainment
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Capturing a musical monster - Mahler's 8th Symphony

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

I feel a kind of divine madness has come over me: after decades of trying to appreciate the first part of Mahler's Eighth Symphony, I finally get it. With the help of Gustavo Dudamel , well over a thousand players and singers, and especially the utterly thrilling sound on this new Blu-ray from Caracas, Venezuela, it finally makes sense to me. Mahler is the most polyphonic composer of all time, and I have always felt he just went too far in this movement. There's just too much going on at once to take in. The writing for the soloists, especially, is hard to fit sonically into everything else that's happening.

Yet, when I heard it live in Usher Hall in Edinburgh, Scotland, I was so overwhelmed by the flood of sound coming at me that I could not avoid sobbing from the thrill of it, even if I didn't understand it. I now feel the problem I have had with this work derives from the inadequate sonics on previous recordings. To record with clarity such a complex mix of sounds from so many performers has been apparently beyond the earlier technologies of the recording art. But the engineers in Caracas have achieved a modern miracle: everything on this Blu-ray (in DTS HD surround) is amazingly clear and fantastically exciting even in the loudest moments when everyone is playing or singing at their loudest.

The fact is that the opening passages, when everyone except the children's chorus is putting out their utmost, are so sonically thrilling that I have been forced to return again and again to experience this thrill. It never fails to raise the hairs on my arms! Thus, I have now listened to this performance many times. Each time it has made more sense. I can hear almost everything clearly, and the result has been that my appreciation has grown with each audition. Finally, when I was sharing it with a half dozen friends last Saturday, it peaked for me ... combining the sensual thrills I had experienced in Edinburgh with my newly acquired sense of Mahler's complex language to push me over the edge into musical ecstasy and madness.

The only other recording that comes close, in my experience, to the sonic glories of this one is the Blu-ray of Wagner's RING from Valencia, Spain. Readers of this column will remember that I have explained how Blu-ray technology gives the home listener, for the first time ever, the potential for totally uncompressed sound: no loss of data (as on all CD's) and no loss of dynamic range (as on all previous recording media). The ultimate result, potentially, is an unprecedented level of clarity on this and the Valencia recordings. On Blu-ray, the potential is there. But few engineers achieve it.

In this performance, the engineers captured the sound of well over 1,000 performers. The chorus alone had so many singers that the choral director, Lourdes Sánchez, could not keep an accurate count; she said somewhere between 1200 and 1300 singers, mostly children from the amazing El Sistema, a comprehensive musical program that gives instruments to most children from the poorest neighborhoods of Venezuela and gives them lessons. Rolex gave 'generous support' to the 'Mahler Project' (of which this concert is but a part), but the enabling factor has to be El Sistema, which provided so many participants with a minimum of expense.

And the result betrays absolutely no compromise in musical quality. On the contrary, the level of commitment and excitement conveyed by the participants only adds to the precision and energy of the music. Dudamel almost performs semaphores to make his beat clear to everyone, no matter the distance from the last row of singers to the podium. Yet nothing is strained or awkward. A nice element is that the first-chair positions are often filled by the young members of the Simón Bolivar Symphony, rather than their more-experienced colleagues from the LA Philharmonic. Watching the audience and the performers AFTER the performance reveals that this disc captures not just a performance but also a great human event.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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