Gift to the nation?
I still like Kent Nagano's Mahler 8th. I'm fairly sure that I've blogged on the topic before, but I am too lazy to go back and check. It is, as reviewers have noted, a clever conception of the work. Nagano brings the drama to the front, and takes the 8th out of the oratorio category and into its own realm. Of course, Klaus Tennstedt's "chamber 8th" makes some sense, letting Mahler's brilliance creep through the reduced orchestration.
The 8th, more and more, I realize, is the pinnacle of Mahler's oeuvre. The religiosity, which began in the 2nd, turned inward in the 3rd and 4th, but it exploded into apotheosis in the 8th. The "Veni, creator spiritus" part, still, is one of the most powerful passages Mahler ever wrote (up there with "Aufersteh'n, ja, aufersteh'n wirst du"). The Faust part, though, provides a similar outlet to the themes of the Eternal Feminine that Mahler first explored in-depth in the 6th, with the "Alma" theme in the Allegro energico. In other words, you have God and you have the deification of love and the feminine. The 8th is, and I am sure this isn't a novel statement, the summa of Mahler's work up to that point. The 9th and 10th (what of it we have) start off in a direction that others would have to tread.
The 8th is Mahler's burial rite for music before his time. Was he justified in composing a grand ritual, bringing everything to a glorious end ("Blicket auf!" indeed)? Probably not, as Stravinsky showed the world that there was still some room for exploration in the major thread, especially with his major works. However, when you look at the Second Viennese School and post-Webernian serialism, you can see that Mahler was probably on the safe side building a great mausoleum to remind the world what was. Of course, this could just be my youth, Mahler-addled mind chattering into the aether mindlessly. Mahler had an ego, so the 8th can be destroyed in a puff of logic there.
I still struggle with this one, as I've said here, but I'm beginning to see it less as his gift to the nation and more as his testament to the world. His 9th begins to start down a new path, and had he stopped with the 8th, his reputation would not diminish one iota. Either way. This symphony is far too grand to attempt to approach it as anything other than an object sui generis. The 9th eludes me too, but this one will always be the central nut to crack for Mahler.
I'm repeating myself, as I've said, but I've been listening to the 8th in various versions a lot recently. I've also been on a major Wagner kick, so wheels within wheels begin to appear and spin.