In spite of its melodic beauty, its contrapuntal lucidity, its harmonic diversity, and its rhythmic energy; in spite of its intellectual virtuosity, its emotional intensity, its expressive clarity, and its spiritual frenzy; in spite of its ritualistic gravity, its ceremonial solemnity, its exquisite agony, and its ultimate ecstasy, Mahler's Eighth Symphony really is too much. Beneath its hymn to the creative spirit and behind its hymn to the eternal feminine, there is something trivial about its agony and something hollow in its ecstasy. Mahler does not so much hail the creative spirit as implore it, does not so much praise the eternal feminine as plead with it. In spite of its sublime aspirations, there is something profoundly narcissistic in Mahler's Eighth, something that, while it may be admirable and even affecting, ultimately only admires itself and affects itself.
Kent Nagano's recording of the Eighth with eight international soloists, the Rundfunkchor Berlin, the MDR Leipzig, the Windsbacher Knabenchor, and the Deutscher-Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin is ultimately admirable, but not altogether affecting. Nagano's emphasis on the linear and lyrical over the sonorous and dramatic makes his interpretation more flexible and less ponderous, and this is admirable. But the performers are not quite up to the extraordinary demands of the music -- some of the solo singers show considerable strain, the choruses sometimes show significant slippage, and the orchestra starts to show signs of exhaustion by the end -- and this is less admirable. The listener, unable to transcend the performance's deficiencies, is finally unable to be affected by it. Harmonia Mundi's sound is big and loud, but thick and congested.