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Jens F. Laurson
WETA 90.9 FM Blog, November 2009

For a while, the Mahler Eight with Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic on Naxos was the only recording (easily) available in the U.S. that comes close to Ozawa’s splendor…Wit knows how to handle large orchestral forces: His 2000 recording of Messiaen’s Symphonie Turangalila (with the Polish Radio SO [8.554478–79]) was the disc that turned me on to Naxos as a high quality in label in the first place; a Turangalila to hold its pride of place against Chung (DG) and Nagano (Warner). The Mahler meanwhile is well paced…this is the kind of “Continental” interpretation I need to hear in the Eighth…leaves Wit the foremost rival to Bernstein’s DG recording among the ones that are easily (or officially) available in the U.S. But even in a more competitive market Wit and his very fine soloists (never mind that I’ve not heard of any of them except Barbara Kubiak: they just about equal any of their more famed competitors on other discs) and enthusiastic choirs should be among the top six choices. The sound is very good if not too detailed, the organ present but not dominating, the climaxes dramatic.

American Record Guide, October 2006

It seems that only yesterday (though it was a year ago, Sept/Oct 2005) that I was marveling about how well the Eighth could withstand the wide difference in playing time between the Nagano and Rattle performances without sounding pushed at the faster or dragged at the slower ends. Here comes another reminder of the same phenomenon. Some ten minutes in playing time divides Haitink's and Solti's performances (both from September 1971­it's worth a smile to think of Harper finishing up as Solti's Soprano I in Vienna and hopping onto the shuttle to Amsterdam to be Haitink's Soprano II). Two other notable phenomena came to my attention here. The first is how precipitously some musical reputations fall after the death of the artists who inspired them. In his lifetime, Solti would sell out concert halls effortlessly. His recordings were commercial hits and recipients of many critical awards. These days, his reputation has plummeted. When he is remembered at all, it is as a brutal, rigid martinet. The second is what different ears we sometimes bring to old much-loved recordings when we revisit them after many years. I recently listened to Solti's first Mahler 5 and was shocked at how pedestrian parts of it sounded. How would the 1971 reissues stand up on reacquaintance? Haitink's, which I had been fond of when it first came out, was mostly a disappointment. I don't know how well he knew the piece back when he recorded it (he has said that he doesn't particularly like it and has dropped it from his repertory), but parts of it sound more than aloof. I am tempted to write that they sound phoned in. The big differences among the performances here are in Part II. Haitink's Introduction is straightforward to a fault. No suspense, no scene-painting. Where Colin Davis and Mitropoulos had the ear riveted in an instant, Haitink plods along. Setting us up for more later? But the later isn't in the opening chorus. No huge vistas here. The echoes are dutiful, not spooky or even atmospheric. Prey's opening lines are so full of expression and life that they are like a reproach to the conductor. It's as if he was thinking "how can you play like that when I'm singing like this?" Like Prey, Sotin is in really good voice, a bass with real weight and color. Haitink plods along patiently but, by the time the More Perfect Angels (a title that sounds like something out of Monty Python) sing their "Uns bleibt ein Erdenrest", the conducting is almost unbearably pedantic. Cochran's voice is a dryish light helden­tenor. It's almost a Loge sound. Acceptable but not inspiring. The sopranos are so-so. Cotrubas sounds lovely. Harper sounds ordinary (what must she have been thinking after having just been through the piece with Solti?) and Van Bork is competent. The altos are both acceptable: Finnila has a more solid voice, though she is stretched by the high parts of her role. Deileman is lighter in voice. Haitink finally comes to life in the "Blicket auf" section with tenor and chorus. It is thrilling, as is the second half of the Chorus Mysticus: those final brass calls have tremendous weight and perfect emphasis. They really do sound as if they are reaching out to the universe. Choruses (and especially the boy choir) sound wonderful. The orchestral playing is good in color, but lacking in intensity and specificity. About six minutes of a wonderful musical experience and 64 minutes of something less than that. Wit's Mahler performances that I've heard have never been bad, but they haven't quite risen to the highest level. This Eighth, which is unfortunately spread onto two discs, thereby giving up Naxos's usual price advantage, is more of the same. If I had heard it as a concert, I would have been pleased. On records, you have to go back again and irritants get compounded. The lack of weight in the chorus and the odd moments annoy: the shaky ensemble and awkward trumpets in the "Gerettet" chorus and the incoherence in the end of the "blicket auf" chorus up to the Chorus Mysticus. The soloists are so variable: an unpleasant, bleaty tenor, who manages to pull himself together for "Blicket auf' but is a nuisance elsewhere and a bass without much color or juice in his voice. Amends come in the presence of a fine baritone, good sopranos, especially Boberska, a haunting Mater Gloriosa, and the more than acceptable altos. Naxos, probably with help from the Polish Radio, has come up with a spectacular recording. The roar of the percussion at the end is something to marvel at. Solti's was a famous recording in its day. It has worn well with time. The cast is a great one, in great form. There are other Eighths with strong singers. Kubelik's has fine women (Arroyo, Spoorenberg, Mathis, Hamari, Proctor). Davis's has Ben Heppner in lovely voice. Mitropoulos has a powerful cast. None of these is a match for Solti's. I've never heard a mountain sing, but if I were to and it didn't sound like Talvela, I would be disappointed. Shirley-Quirk has to work a little at the top of his range, but is solid and powerful. Kollo is simply thrilling. Along with Mitropoulos's Giuseppe Zampieri and Heppner, his is the pinnacle of this part on records. He is in his best voice here: clear and ringing, effortlessly beautiful and heroic, with the Chicago strings shining like sunbeams around his voice. Harper is incomparably better here than she was for Haitink. Her voice and Popp's are sweet and fresh and blessedly in tune. Auger is the Mater Gloriosa that dreams are made of. Both altos are superb; Minton is a little darker than Watts, but they blend beautifully with each other and with Popp in the trio. The redoubtable Wilhelm Pitz has the choral forces in fine shape. The Vienna Boy choir is at its formidable best, and the orchestral playing is a delight. The Chicago under Solti could sometimes be brutal and colorless, but not here. The playing is superlative and effortless. Solti's conducting is also fine here. His Part I combines nuance with propulsion in a way that Haitink, who is plain to a fault, and Wit, who is more expressive than Haitink but not especially perceptive, don't. His introduction to Part II is not much less straight than Haitink's, but is so much more alive. Solti was an old opera hand, and setting a scene in music was second nature to him, as was musical storytelling. Tension and release, light and shadow are perfectly managed in this wonderful reading. Does Solti fall short at all? I'm afraid he does. The very end of the work, so beautifully set up by all that went before, doesn't quite take off the way that Haitink- not to mention Mitropoulos, Davis, and several other performances-manages to. Something extra is missing. It's not enough to spoil or even mar the performance, but I can't help wishing that someone had told Solti and company to give it one more try. Wit has excellent modern recorded sound with presence and space and a huge dynamic range. Nothing to complain about there. Haitink has the extra presence of SACD, which is an impressive advantage, set off by tape hiss that's also audible in the CD tracks. Solti's sound was impressive in its time and remains so. The hiss is almost inaudible and not in the least distracting in the face of the performance. Solti comes with text, translation, and a nice liner note by Michael Kennedy. Wit and Haitink offer no text or translation. The former gives a liner note and short biographies of the musicians (I was fascinated to learn that the bleaty tenor is known as "the best Hungarian tenor" even though he is not Hungarian. Information like that is worth many texts and translations!) Haitink offers a quite good note on the music and some discussion of four-channel techniques that Philips was experimenting with at the time. It also has a cover photo of Haitink conducting with eyes closed. At first I wondered if he was doing a Karajan imitation, but after rehearing this performance, I suspect that even he was having trouble staying awake. The Mahler 8 situation is a complex one. The most riveting performances both have problems. Mitropoulos's sound is not very good, even in the Orfeo release, its best mastering. Colin Davis's female singers are not the best (he is burdened with Sharon Sweet, who also disfigured Maazel's Vienna recording). The Horenstein on BBC is dramatic but inconsistent. The Nagano and Rattle are both pleasant and well recorded, if not exactly life-transforming experiences. There are Bernstein performances on both Sony and DG where the conductor works the musicians, the audience, and himself tremendously hard to produce a symphony that's only a little bit less compelling than Mahler's original. The Solti is a very strong performance. It will probably be a first choice for many listeners who don't want to deal with Mitropoulos's sound or Davis's sopranos, though they will be giving up that last measure of grandiose elation that is so much a part of this huge work.

Tony Haywood
MusicWeb International, October 2006

Naxos has a large number of complete, or ongoing, cycles of one sort or another in its catalogue and many of them can stand comparison with the best. Unfortunately the Mahler symphony cycle hasn’t been one of them, at least the ones I’ve caught, where my general impression has been to agree with the critics who’ve dubbed them ‘worthy’ or ‘honest’. It appears the cycle has been shared out between Michael Halasz and Antoni Wit and it has to be said that the highest praise has been reserved so far for 4 and 6, both conducted by Wit and neither of which I’ve heard. Coming completely fresh, as it were, to this Eighth, I have to say I have been quite surprisingly bowled over, so much so it makes me want to get hold of those other Wit Mahler recordings. I know what a dynamic yet thoughtful conductor he can be from loads of other Naxos discs, notably the Lutoslawski and Penderecki series (perhaps understandable), his superb accompaniments for the Prokofiev and Rachmaninov concertos, to say nothing of his recent and universally praised Alpine Symphony. All those recordings prove what a superb orchestral technician he is, coaxing playing of great virtuosity from a variety of ensembles but caring deeply about balance, texture and sonority. So it is with this Eighth, where one of the immediate delights is the welter of huge but controlled sound that bursts forth from the speakers, pinning you back with its force but never rushed or hard driven. In fact, I have to praise his choice of tempos throughout, fast enough to be exciting but never tipping over into a breakneck, hell-for-leather mess. The choral contribution is the other immediate delight, full-toned and resonant, never squally or vibrato-laden but tight, disciplined and, in fact, inspired. This ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ is, to quote Deryck Cooke, a ‘great confident shout to the skies’ but Wit always understands that this opening motif is the basic seed for the entire work and that this is a first movement allegro, not the climax. There is a whole symphony to go and Wit makes sure that we don’t get overkill too soon. This in turn means managing the many tricky gearshifts and tempo fluctuations, something he achieves with a consummate skill that is, to my ears, the most convincing since Tennstedt. The flow is never broken even when Mahler keeps slipping ‘etwas zögend’ (somewhat hesitating) or ‘nicht schleppend’ (not dragging) into the mix. The great double fugue that starts at ‘Ductore sic te praevio’ is thrilling, with every strand of the complex contrapuntal texture vital and crystal clear, but then that goes for the whole movement. The closing pages, from ‘Gloria Patri Domino’, where the overlapping choral entries are flung out like shooting stars, feel truly earned in this performance, and if Wit refuses to press on as quickly as Solti, it is no less exciting; indeed, it felt to me possibly even more noble and euphoric for holding its ground and resisting the temptation to spill over into the hysterical. It should also be mentioned here that the important organ part sounds naturally integrated into the whole sound spectrum rather than planted on later, as some versions suffer from. The same goes for Part 2, whose opening prelude is as atmospheric as any I’ve heard, recorded or live. The orchestral playing has a luminous sheen, especially the strings, that is quite wonderful and keeping a steady pace brings out a wealth of textural detail, especially in the woodwind. Later Wit begins to move the pace on towards the scherzo section (women’s and boys’ voices) and thereafter builds an inexorable momentum that finds its natural release in ‘Alles Vergängliche’, true symphonically-shaped conducting rather than episode by episode. The very special choral contribution has been mentioned and the soloists are not far behind. Timothy Bentch’s Doctor Marianus copes heroically with the cruel tessitura, still managing to shape the words and phrases more convincingly than some tenors. Of the sopranos Marta Boberska has the most radiant timbre but the others do not really disappoint, and only Piotr Novacki’s Pater Profundis has anything approaching a real wobble among the entire cast. The engineers work miracles in capturing this whole spectacle with warmth, fullness and precision. Nothing is falsely highlighted, something you can’t quite say about the Solti, and this sound quality is easily the equal of Sinopoli’s beautifully recorded DG version. Talking of other performances, there’s no doubt the Solti holds a special place among classic Eighths, especially so now it is on one lower mid-price Decca disc. The Sinopoli comes on a DG twofer (with the Tenth Adagio) so is also cheap, as is the Tennstedt, currently coupled with No.4 as an EMI Great Recording of the Century. These have for a while been my personal benchmarks as I haven’t heard recent notable additions to the catalogue from Chailly and Rattle. If Naxos could just have squeezed this onto one disc (maybe just possible these days) this would have been a world-beater. As it is, it’s still exceptional value given the standard of the music-making on offer and serious Mahlerians really should hear it.

Robert Benson, June 2006

Considering previous Mahler recordings conducted by Antoni Wit for Naxos I didn't hold high hopes for this recording of the mighty Symphony of a Thousand recorded during sessions early in June 2005 at the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall—and was very pleasantly surprised. This is first-class in every way. Wit's attention to detail is extraordinary, the orchestra superb. The soloists range from good to superb, the four choruses are equally fine. Producers Andrezej Sasin and Aleksandra Nagórko have done a magnificent job in capturing the massive sonorities of the music, with soloists perfectly balanced. This is one of the top Mahler Eighths on CD, and at budget price. A track list and program notes in the booklet, but for texts and translations you must visit the Naxos web site: Bios are provided for the performers; soprano Barbara Kubiak's states that she has recorded Mahler's Seven Symphony, quite an accomplishment!

Robert Cummings
Classical Net, June 2006

Among the many recordings of the Mahler Eighth Symphony, I had always ranked Leonard’s Bernstein’s old (1960s) Columbia version (not his DG live-concert remake) as the finest ever, the one for the ever-growing competition to beat. It has been reissued by Sony Classics and is apparently still available. Needless to say, there have been many excellent recordings that followed that first Bernstein effort, including the Sinopoli (DG), Solti (Decca), Tennstedt (EMI) and Shaw (Telarc). Now we have this new one on Naxos by the still-underrated Polish conductor Antoni Wit—and it is perhaps the best of the lot. Certainly, if I take sound reproduction into account, the scales clearly tip in the favor of Wit. But it’s hardly just the vivid Naxos sonics that distinguish this effort: Wit’s ensemble of singers is excellent, especially the female contingent, led by sopranos Barbara Kubiak and Izabeta Klosinska. The choral groups involved are also splendid. But much of the credit must go to Wit, whose tempos are consistently well-judged and whose sense of drama is keen and insightful: you’ll hear all kinds of meaningful detail in this performance—detail often buried in other recordings. Wit’s orchestra plays brilliantly for him as well, rounding out one of the finest recordings of anything in recent times. If I had to recommend just one recording of this work to listeners, whether they are familiar or unfamiliar with this symphony, it would be this gorgeous new one on Naxos. Highest recommendations!

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, June 2006

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony receives a superb performance by forces of the Warsaw Philharmonic led by Antoni Wit (8.550-533-34, two discs). Wit offers an often fleet reading of what can be a very ponderous work, and also maintains Mahler’s indicated dynamics; on most recordings the soloists (here all fine Polish singers) tend to scream in their upper registers, much against the lofty spirit of the music. Not in this performance. Exceptionally fine balances, both on Wit’s part and on the recording itself.

David Hurwitz, April 2006

Just when you thought you didn't need yet another Mahler 8, along comes this version, and it just about sweeps the board. Let's face it, it's been a good couple of years for this symphony. Chailly's Decca recording was magnificently played and sung; Nagano's is unrivalled for its sensuality and atmosphere and is sensational in surround sound; and EMI recently reissued the Bertini--exciting, cogent, and perhaps the finest of all in terms of singing and orchestral execution. Antoni Wit, whose Mahler hasn't been all that impressive thus far, comes closest to Bertini in terms of the sheer intelligence of his conducting, and in his scrupulous adherence to both the spirit and the letter of the score. But he also has that sense of vastness that Bertini deliberately underplays, but with no loss of clarity. The engineering really is something special. It captures lots of detail in quiet passages and has plenty of amplitude at the climaxes, including an organ and offstage brass better integrated into the overall sound picture than in any other performance.

Wit is helped by really outstanding choral singing. The combined choirs have enough power to make the contrapuntal lines in the first movement's epic fugue clear, even in a large acoustic, and the children are simply terrific. As with Tennstedt's recording, the soloists emerge naturally from within the orchestral fabric, their lines intertwining with Mahler's characteristic writing for the winds and strings. This makes all of those "Wunderhorn"-style solos in the second movement spring colorfully to life.

Not only do the singers cooperate and blend splendidly with each other in the first movement, but there's not a significantly weak link among them. Soprano Izabela Klosinska's fresh, girlish soprano is ideal for Gretchen, even if her German pronunciation is a bit strange, and all of the other women are excellent. Tenor Timonthy Bentch does as fine a job with his first big number in praise of the Virgin as just about anyone: he's bright, confident, and heroic, and his "Blicket auf!" is stunning. You won't hear a more virile Pater Ecstaticus than Wojtek Drabowicz, nor a steadier, more solidly imposing Pater Profundis than Piotr Nowacki.

But most of the credit has to go to Wit. In a recording that could have turned into a muddle, he energizes his huge forces to give a 100 percent effort. The orchestra plays magnificently. You will hear countless details in the brass section that you haven't heard elsewhere, and the string articulation is worth the price of the disc (listen to the generous portamentos when the tenor sings "Mutter, Königin" in the "Blicket auf!" episode, here taken slowly and with as sensual a feel for sonority as Nagano).

But slow is very much the exception. Wit finds the ideal allegro for the opening movement and never loses sight of it. He drives the double fugue thrillingly to its climax, and most importantly never lets the tension sag in the quieter moments--check out "Infirma nostri corporis" in the first movement to hear how he sustains the pulse when most other versions lose it entirely. There are countless other examples of Wit's sensitivity in this regard: try his thrilling return to tempo primo when the choir reenters with "Accende lumen sensibus" in mid-fugue. Powerful stuff!

The prelude to the second movement has great atmosphere as well as really impressive phrasing from the strings. Later, Wit makes a big and wholly appropriate accelerando into the scherzando eruption of the women's chorus after the Pater Profundis solo, and from then on he keeps the music moving purposefully forward. The three solos for the ladies, and their trio, move along smartly, which makes the glowing appearance of the Mater Gloriosa, perfectly sung by soprano Marta Boberska, all the more evocative.

Instrumental details, such as the mandolin parts before the children's final chorus, and those flecks of harp and celesta that pepper the movement's second half, all register naturally and give the music the shimmer that Mahler intended. Notice how naturally Wit integrates the glittering piccolo solo transition to the Chorus Mysticus: so often it comes across as an independent episode, but here it's a single arch of melody coming to rest in the first notes of the chorus. It's what great Mahler conducting should be.

So, where does this leave us? There are now Mahler Eighths for just about every taste. Bertini is lean and lively, but with amazing codas to each movement. Nagano is lush, even decadent. There are also fine earlier versions from Bernstein (Sony), Tennstedt (EMI), Sinopoli (DG), and Solti (Decca), and an impressive if technically flawed live version from Kubelik (Audite). But if you want to hear a performance that combines the best of just about all of the competing versions and offers the most accurate sense of what the piece really does (or should) sound like live, then this is way to go. The fact that it's available at budget price is a bonus: you would pay twice as much with pleasure to enjoy an interpretation on this level of excellence. What an extraordinary and delightful surprise!"

Christopher Abbot

This is my first encounter with Antoni Wit's Mahler series, and I can't think of a more challenging way to get my feet wet. There are comparatively few low-cost recordings of Mahler's gargantuan "gift to the whole nation," so Wit has, at least, the advantage of value- for-money. To determine whether that is enough to tempt prospective buyers is at least one of the objectives of this review.

One is struck by the full-bodied sound production from the very first notes: the wide soundstage easily accommodates the huge number of performers, yet there is enough instrumental definition to allow Mahler's ingenious orchestration to be audible. The choral singing is accurate and intelligible, if somewhat under-characterized: compared to, for instance, Solti's Viennese choristers, this is singing that is competent and pleasant rather than compelling. The soloists sound youthful and well matched, for the most part eschewing vibrato (all to the good as far as I'm concerned).

Wit's tempos in part I communicate the power of Mahler's text without the haste of Gielen (Sony) or the sheer momentum of Solti (Decca). The conducting is of the Haitink-Bertini school: straight forward, unexaggerated, almost self-effacing. One finds few of the gestures that characterize either Tennstedt's classic recording or Rattle's recent one, both of which take a more personal view of the music. Listeners who value objectivity in Mahler will no doubt approve.

Part II continues in the manner of the previous movement, without the needed change in focus: as the landscape passes in review, Wit is satisfied with, for the most part, being the attentive but not intrusive tour guide, though there is finally some emotional involvement with the arrival of the first big theme at the 3:38 mark. From that point onward, we are more engaged by the unfolding drama. The choral singing at "Waldung, sie shwankt heran" is mechanical and uninflected, lacking character, though there is some gain in sensitivity near the end of the passage. The baritone and bass solos are effective enough, though both are somewhat light-toned, and the orchestra almost overwhelms them in its swelling enthusiasm (more a failing of the engineers than the singers, perhaps).

The engineers face the problem of presenting either a natural perspective for the choruses, or of artificially spotlighting them for added clarity; the Naxos team opts for the former, with the result that the chorus sometimes sounds a bit distant and indistinct, especially in part I; this is less of a problem as the More Perfect Angels, Blessed Boys, and other select groups make their appearance in part II. The Doctor Marianus of Timothy Bentch is one of the highlights ofthis section. His Heldentenor capability doesn't obscure the sensitivity of his characterization. Jadwiga Rappe sings her Mulier Samaritana part with a muffled head-voice that obscures her words in an unpleasant way; the other two women in this trio section are more successful, and Izabela Klosmska's Gretchen is delightfully direct.

With "Blicket auf1" Bentch resoundingly initiates the closing section, and the choruses rise to the occasion. The "Chorus Mysticus" is presented with sensitivity but is once again obscured by the engineering--or the hall acoustics. The final few minutes are effective at producing a fitting conclusion to this daunting undertaking; what's missing is the goose-bump inducing thrill of the absolute integration of first-rate sound and performance.

To answer the question posed at the beginning of this review: yes, this recording is certainly worth the money, and if price is your overwhelming concem, this is a good bargain and a very good performance. If you seek a more adventurous and dynamic Eighth, though, Solti's Decca Legends recording, on one disc, is cheaper and probably more nourishing in the long run. And if price is not a concern, I recommend Rattle's new EMI recording in its DVD format for an Eighth that is thoughtful, sometimes provocative, always expertly played and sung, and is presented in absolutely first-rate sound.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group