Mahler 8 – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Gatti (Birmingham)

Symphony No.8 (Symphony of a Thousand)

Janice Watson, Christine Teare & Gillian Keith (sopranos)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers & Jean Rigby (mezzo-sopranos)
Kim Begley (tenor)
Phillip Joll (baritone)
Matthew Best (bass-baritone)

London Symphony Chorus
London Philharmonic Choir
New London Children’s Choir

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 16 September, 2006
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Closely following on from the previous evening’s performance at the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, as part of its 60th-anniversary celebrations, headed north to Birmingham and a packed Symphony Hall – a notable account aided by the superb acoustic.

The Munich premiere of the symphony was given just eight months before the composer’s death and conducted by the composer himself. It is reported that the forces numbered 858 singers and 171 orchestra musicians, statistics that have been challenged, the popular nickname of ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ added by an impresario of the day; the composer, however, strongly objected to it. For Birmingham, there were substantially fewer performers, with, according to the programme, 118 members of the orchestra, and, when compared to the London account, two less choirs. Jean Rigby was new to the roster of soloists.

The symphony’s opening is a tour de force, the listener presented with a wall of sound entreating the creator to allow his spirit to enter. The 6000-pipe Symphony Hall organ combined with a multitude of brass instruments and the rest of the orchestra, and the choruses, didn’t really offer as much as it portended to do.

Apart the slight disappointment with the opening, the balance and contrast between the loud and the more subtle parts of the symphony worked extremely well. Seven of the soloists were placed in-between the orchestra and the choruses, with the eighth, Gillian Keith (as Mater Gloriosa, in the symphony’s “Faust”-inspired second part), in the now de rigueur position high above orchestra and choir. The orchestra accompanied the eight soloists in a supportive manner, rarely overpowering them though they may have had their work cut out had they tried with Manx soprano Christine Teare whose supremely powerful voice was capably heard above both chorus and orchestra even while both were at full steam!

An inevitable lag caused by the distance between the conductor and the furthest reaches of the choir and orchestra was sadly present with some ragged ensemble-playing most noticeable in the first movement. Gatti’s conducting was clear and it ought to have been easy to anticipate his beat in this instance.

Rounded pizzicatos in the lower strings and shimmering violins evoked a dark and bleak landscape at the start of Part II, the final scene of Goethe’s “Faust”. The choral singers seemed to loose their footing here with words that were indistinct and sometimes inaudible. The lighter tone of Phillip Joll as Pater Ecstaticus soon brought things back into focus – almost too much so with the orchestra, for the first time, in danger of overpowering him.

Kim Begley’s bell-like tone was a delight, not only as Doctor Marianus in his “women pass by there” solo but also together with the following chorus which was as perfect a blend of choir, solo voice, and orchestra, as could be wished for.

The trio “You, who does not deny your presence” found well-matched timbre and power from the voices of Janice Watson, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Jean Rigby though the part of Maria Aegyptiaca did test the lower register of Rigby to the full.

The pianissimo opening of the final chorus was exquisite and when the off-stage trumpets and trombones took there positions in the boxes on either side of the stage there could be little doubt that this was to be the high-point of the evening and, as the words spell out, “the incomplete is here fulfilled”. Aurally and visually this was a superb performance by an orchestra that is in good form and apparently eager for another sixty years.

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