Colin Davis is one of a handful of great conductors who have avoided Mahler (in the modern era, I mean, since avoiding Mahler was standard practice for fifty years after his death in 1911, except among acolytes and devotees). Perhaps Davis realizes that his gifts aren't sympathetic to this composer -- he's also avoided Beethoven's symphonies. Yet in both cases he's made the occasional stab, and this live Mahler Eighth from Munich is one. Before its release in 1997 Davis had made an out-of-sorts Das Lied von der Erde that disappointed me and recordings of the First and Fourth Sym. that I haven't heard.
Some parts of this Eighth verge on the unacceptable, beginning with the stiff, blunt, squally choral singing in Part I that is a trial to get through, much less enjoy. Davis makes big waves but little sense in his hectic, driven conducting. I rested my hopes on Part II, the most difficult sectin but also the one that allows for subtlety and a more operatic approach. Those would seem to be among Davis's strengths. It's also hear that he could let his select roster of singers shine. Here they are:
Alessandra Marc , Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz , Ning Liang , Sharon Sweet sops Vesselina Kasarova mez Ben Heppner ten Sergei Leiferkus bar René Pape bass
Things don't get off to a good start. Davis lurches through the introduction rather aimlessly, at times listless, at times blustery. I have a fairly wide tolerance for conducting styles, but this was as amorphous as Davis's hapless Das Lied. Both works cry out for a vision that can make Mahler's immense musical diversity cohere and make sense. Davis seems merely to be struggling from one moment to the next. as a result, Part II is jerky and episodic, the very thing a coductor is there to prevent.
Among the soloists, baritone Sergei Leiferkus attacks his solos with convincing ardor and vocal thrust. Ben Heppner soars above any ohter tenor I've heard in this work -- if only he could have joined a better performance -- and Rene Pape is his usual excellent self. The women fare less well, however, tending to sound curdled and coarse, especially the strained, wobbly Sharon Sweet, who briefly and mysteriously was a favorite of Davis's (she sank an otherwise admirable 'Lohengirn' from him). When blending together, the women are at times unnlistenable, barely able to sing their parts in tune.
Colin Davis could conduct 'Pop Goes the Weasel' blind drnk and get a rave from the Gramophone, but even they had their doubts. They invent imaginary virtues for this "glowing" reading, "the Bavarians even outclassing their colleagues in Berlin, London and Chicago" (uh oh, pass the smelling salts) but in the end couldn't offer a gneral recommendation. That speaks volumes.