Mahler 8 – Forest Philharmonic (18 January)

Symphony No.8 in E flat “Symphony of a Thousand”

Naomi Harvey (soprano)
Lynda Russell (soprano)
Eileen Hulse (soprano)
Julia Batchelor (mezzo-soprano)
Kathryn Turpin (mezzo-soprano)
Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (tenor)
Ashley Holland (baritone)
Graeme Danby (bass)

Crouch End Festival Chorus
Hertfordshire Chorus
Finchley Children’s Music Group
Forest Philharmonic Orchestra
David Temple

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 18 January, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

With combined choral forces totalling a little over 300, an orchestra of 122 and not forgetting the 8 soloists, the stage and choir-area at the Festival Hall were full to overflowing, as was the auditorium. It may not quite have been the “Symphony of a Thousand” but the visual and aural impact in this relatively confined space was nonetheless appropriately overwhelming.

Fortunately the actual performance was not lacking either. Indeed one suspects that nearly 100 years after the work was completed in 1906, whatever Mahler might have thought about individual points of interpretation, he would have been both amazed and gratified to find his most gigantic and complex score being tackled with such elan and confidence by largely non-professional forces.

Whatever the logistical difficulties of using the Festival Hall for large-scale choral works, when compared to larger venues such as the traditionally used Royal Albert Hall, the smaller hall has one important advantage. It may not afford the most comfortable of listening experiences but from the opening E flat chord, hearing the music up this close, the sheer up-front immediacy of sound undoubtedly recreated some of the physical impact the work must have originally generated when it was premiered by Mahler in Munich in 1910 or at its subsequent US premiere at the Philadelphia Academy of Music in 1916.

The first part of the symphony, the gigantic hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus” largely belongs to the choir. In the wrong hands, rather than springing into action, the opening can lumber, like a heavy but under-powered car trying too hard to accelerate, and thereafter the movement can all too easily lose impetus. To his credit, David Temple, adopted a brisk speed and then drove the music forward whilst the combined choirs sang lustily and with evident enthusiasm (and in this music “lustily” is undoubtedly right). If there was a downside, it was that too often the intervening softer dynamic markings went by the board and as the movement progressed there was an undoubted feeling of overkill. By the close, instead of the screw having been gradually tightened as the movement progressed, we were left feeling slightly battered rather than exhilarated. A case of too much too soon.

In Part 2, a vast tableau based on the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust, the individual soloists come into their own. However, before they enter there is a long quiet orchestral interlude. This could be something of a trap for the non-professional orchestra since much of the writing is extremely exposed, and here it is worth commenting on the excellence of some of the individual contributions from the Forest Philharmonic, notably a plangent and sensitive first oboe, some professional-sounding lower woodwind chording and, later in the movement, the quietly confident playing of the first horn. Although not the most polished of string sections, the actual body of sound which the strings produced at climaxes and also the intensity of their playing was impressive.

Inevitably, with as many as 8 soloists on stage some were more impressive than others – the resonant ’Pater Profundis’ of Graeme Danby and the sensitively phrased ’Maria Aegyptica’ of Kathryn Turpin. Some of the other singers tended to pay insufficient attention to dynamics.

Primarily a choral conductor, David Temple does not have the stick technique ideally required to control of the ebb and flow of some of the work’s more difficult passages, nor to realise the more subtle dynamic aspects. However, in no way should this detract from a highly impressive personal achievement. Most of Temple’s choices made musical sense and were solidly based in the score, and simply to have led a more than adequate performance of this gigantic piece with largely non-professional forces was an act of singular courage. With so much to go wrong, the truth is that a great deal went right.

An important footnote. When so little real support and encouragement is now given to teaching and nurturing music in our schools and when our governing elite appears to be made up of the most crass and least impressive individuals in my lifetime, endeavours such as this Mahler 8 and organisations such as these choirs and orchestra are the very lifeblood and future of music-making in the UK. Without them generations would grow up not knowing what it is to make live music collectively to the highest standards. The more ambitious their programming the better, and the more they deserve our unqualified support.

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