There can be few more exhilarating starts to a Proms season than the opening chord of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (the so-called "Symphony of a Thousand") and the massed sound of a huge chorus calling on the Spirit Creator to inspire and fill the soul. With some eight weeks of artistic creativity ahead that promises much – and this performance certainly set the barrier very high to start.
Perhaps the Royal Albert Hall is one of the best places to hear this work, as Mahler’s complex and detailed markings need spaciousness to make their full impact. Jiří Bělohlávek proved himself and his BBC Symphony Orchestra adept at realising most of the challenges. The tricky co-ordination and sonic handling of the remote instruments, here placed high in the Gallery, worked perfectly, and the opening of Part 2 (the closing scene of Goethe’s “Faust” was notable for rigid control of texture and dynamics together with maintenance of intensity. The strings of the BBC Symphony Orchestra sounded warm, and the woodwind-players were at their accomplished best with all their intricate figures coming over with clarity and beauty. If there were a few minor trumpet fluffs early-on these could be quickly passed over as Bělohlávek’s fleet interpretation gradually gathered momentum. He’s a refreshingly un-showy conductor and always allows the music to unfold organically with the minimum of physical signposting. Good also to hear the Royal Albert Hall organ making an impact. Those staccato forte
chords in the first movement can rarely have made such a shattering impact.
But Bělohlávek also proved adept at bringing out all the stratified complexities of the choral parts with ease and finesse, despite the truly massive forces at his disposal. The BBC Symphony Chorus is notable for clarity of words, and these singers’ partnership with the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, the Crouch End Festival Chorus and the various chorister groups had no diminution of this important attribute – all singers singing and enunciating as one. The more energetic moments were freshly voiced and devoid of raucousness; the hushed chorale passages equally compelling in their intensity. Although rehearsal had obviously been thorough there was still a strong sense of excitement and spontaneity.
Mahler’s demands on the solo singers are huge. Nearly all have to reach the extremes of their ranges, often at volume and more often than not against some formidable orchestral and choral ‘opposition’. Hard enough in most venues – but more so in the cavernous Royal Albert hall acoustic where lower-pitched voices can often sound underpowered and higher ones stretched.
For the most part all the soloists overcame these obstacles, and some were absolutely top notch. Mardi Byers and Twyla Robinson were the two principal sopranos, the former amazingly accurate of pitch high above the stave, although her attractively light and ethereal sound sometimes sounded edgy at the high forte
extremes. Robinson proved a winning partner for her, her long-breathed sense of line and creamy tone combining yet contrasting effectively, and in the ‘Alles Vergängliche’ she handled her pivotal line with real poise. In her recessed moment in the spotlight as Mater Gloriosa, Malin Christensson’s soprano floated angelically. Stefan Vinke, a late substitute as tenor soloist, sang this excruciatingly high and demanding part more mellifluously and musically than any other tenor I have heard live. So often there is a sense of barking and of desperation to hit those high notes and be heard. Not so here. ‘Höchste Herrscherin der Welt’ was impassioned and beautiful, and in ‘Blicket auf’ Vinke’s smooth voice soared ever upwards with little sign of strain or tiredness. The mezzo-sopranos were also extremely fine with Stephanie Blythe’s impressively sized and rich voice filling the hall with ease even when at the baritonal depths of the range, and Kelley O’Connor’s more restrained vocalism proved an ideal foil. Hanno Müller-Brachmann and Tomasz Konieczny made their mark in their shorter solo passages.
Needless to say the Arena and Gallery queues were extremely long before the performance and the Royal Albert Hall was absolutely packed. The reception was predictably enthusiastic for this first performance 'of term'. The 116th-season of BBC Henry Wood Promenade Concerts has got off to a flying start.