Mahler 8 – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Gatti (London)

Symphony No.8 (Symphony of a Thousand)

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

London Symphony Chorus
London Philharmonic Choir
Brighton Festival Chorus
The London Chorus
New London Children’s Choir

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti

Reviewed by: Tristan Jakob-Hoff

Reviewed: 15 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra gets its bus pass this year, and this gala concert marked 60 years to the day since the orchestra’s very first performance under founder Sir Thomas Beecham, an anniversary that the RPO’s present music director Daniele Gatti marked with a performance of Mahler’s gigantic Eighth Symphony. This represents the very antithesis of growing old gracefully: Mahler’s Eighth is a boisterous shout-out to the twin forces of creative prowess and redemptive women. Not a million miles away from a drunken night out at Stringfellows, then.

Certainly, this was no low-key celebration. The Royal Albert Hall was packed to capacity, and not just with audience members: the choral and orchestral forces alone totalled well over 500 performers (not quite as many as at the 1910 Munich premiere that coined the ‘thousand’ tag) – and it was more than enough to rattle the rafters of the cavernous Royal Albert Hall.

The evening kicked off magnificently, with the huge double chorus – a composite group formed from no less than five separate choirs – engaged in splendid antiphonal declamations against a powerful accompaniment from the organ. Gatti’s tempos were generally well chosen (even if he didn’t always manage to convincingly shift between them), giving each of Mahler’s densely polyphonous strands a fair stab at audibility. The septet of vocal soloists didn’t quite manage to coalesce, however, and there was some particularly scraggy singing from Janice Watson and Christine Teare. Nonetheless, the final bars of the 25-minute first movement – an impressively sustained wall of sound – were enough to generate a buzz of excitement in anticipation of the more substantial second, an hour-long slow movement, scherzo and finale rolled into one.

This began with a nocturnally mysterious introduction that saw the best showcase for the orchestra itself – not to mention its conductor, who highlighted the music’s debt to Wagner’s “Parsifal” and its elevated sense of spiritual expectation. Sadly, that expectancy was soon flagging and Gatti couldn’t quite get it going again for a good 20 minutes or so. The soloists, who had sung in the first half as a single unit, returned here one-by-one to portray characters from the celebrated final scene of Goethe’s Faust, starting with Phillip Joll’s Pater Ecstaticus and ultimately reaching tenor Kim Begley’s excellent Doctor Marianus. Female voices gradually joined in, with Catherine Wyn-Rogers outstanding in the Mulier Samaritana role and Gillian Keith strikingly pure in her delivery of the two-line Mater Gloriosa cameo.

The final ‘Chorus Mysticus’ was the real payoff, though. To hear 500 voices singing as softly and as beautifully as this is quite something and the journey to the other end of the volume spectrum was deeply impressive. A pity then that Janice Watson’s brief contribution to this build-up went so direly wrong – her voice cracking at precisely the worst possible moment – but it all came right in the end, with the massive final bars continuing to resonate even as the air was filled up with applause.

To his credit, Gatti showed a demonstrable commitment to Mahler’s score, treating it with real seriousness rather than simply milking it for effect as some conductors do. But what of the orchestra whose birthday this party was in aid of? Well, Beecham is attributed with the adage: “Start together and finish together: the public doesn’t give a damn what goes in between”. The RPO certainly managed to get that much right and the musicians even produced some rather lovely string playing in the still, dreamy centre of the ‘finale’. But that didn’t excuse the rather mediocre standard of their playing generally; string tone was variable, brass sounds indifferent, and ensemble rather poor. Tempting though it is to praise the “have a go RPO” for trying to punch above its weight with a work like this, it is worth remembering that this isn’t a group of talented amateurs – as attested to by the £60 top-price tickets. For a special night like this, one would really have expected the orchestra to raise its game rather more than it did.

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