Rattle Mahler 8

Symphony No.8 in E flat (Symphony of a Thousand)

Christine Brewer, Soile Isokoski & Julianne Banse (sopranos)
Birgit Remmert & Jane Henschel (mezzo-soprano)
Jon Villars (tenor)
David Wilson-Johnson (bass-baritone)
John Relyea (bass)

City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus
Toronto Children’s Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 June, 2004
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Although he recorded the latter stages of his Mahler cycle in Vienna (No. 9) and Berlin (No. 5 and the remake of No. 10), it made sense for Simon Rattle to return to Birmingham to set down the Eighth Symphony – not least because it was an account of the Resurrection Symphony (No.2) with this orchestra almost 24 years ago that gave notice of a Mahler interpreter of distinction.

Back then, Rattle expressed major doubts over the intrinsic quality of the Eighth – to the extent that it was always likely to be the closing chapter of his Mahler odyssey. A performance with the National Youth Orchestra at the 2002 Proms demonstrated an understanding which was the more estimable for having been acquired over an evidently lengthy period (how many conductors have performed and/or recorded this work simply because it had to be tackled in an integral cycle?), and the present account – following on from those last Friday (an open-to-the-public dress rehearsal) and Saturday – featured virtually the same line-up of soloists and choruses in a performance which differed from those two years ago largely by degree.

Indeed, with identical timings for each part (23 and 53 minutes respectively), Rattle’s approach has fully retained its underlying swiftness and overall symphonic cohesion. Part One, Mahler’s typically interventionist setting of the medieval hymn “Veni creator spiritus”, remains lithe and exhilarating by turns. Rattle still underlines the contrast in pacing between the opening chorus and the soloists’ rendering of ‘Imple superna gratia’, while pointing up the crepuscular interlude that precedes ‘Infirma nostri corporis’ and dwelling a little too much on the beatific vocal writing that follows. The fugue beginning at ‘Accende lumen sensibus’ has all the clarity that its pivotal role in the structure of the movement warrants, and Rattle makes full use of his experience with Symphony Hall’s acoustic in successfully balancing the textures of some of Mahler’s most densely contrapuntal writing – building up to a resplendent return of the main theme and a driving, perhaps now marginally overdriven, coda.

With its outwardly sectional from and unwieldy amalgam of opera and dramatic cantata, Part Two’s setting of the final scene from Goethe’s “Faust” risks being weighed down by its own portentousness. As before, Rattle constantly found the ideal tempo that projects its continual transition from earthlyequivocation to heavenly fulfilment as an over-arching, intrinsically symphonic trajectory. The lengthyorchestral introduction – redolent of the Mahler to come – purposefully fused mystery and anguish, and though the initial choral entry seemed lacking in inwardness, an air of tension was maintained until the soaring lines of Pater Ecstaticus bring about an emotional sea-change.

Well integrated as an ensemble in Part One, the soloists now made the most of their opportunities to shine. David Wilson-Johnson (standing in for an indisposed Matthias Goerne) was soulful as Pater Ecstaticus, John Relyea excelled in the rhetorical soul-searching of Pater Profundus, and the Doctor Marianus of John Villars was ardent if often strained and uneven in phrasing (not helped at one point by over-effusive singing from the children’s choirs). Christine Brewer, Birgit Remmert and Jane Henschel were well matched in tone and character as Magna Peccatrix, Mulier Samaritana and Maria Aegyptiaca, while Soile Isokoski brought a chaste quality to the imploring of Una Poenitentium, though Julianne Banse’s Mater Gloriosa was less transcendent-sounding than her placing in one of the lower acoustic-chambers high above the platform might have led one to expect. Rattle was again at pains to ensure that the children’s choirs had character without being twee, and the ‘Chorus Mysticus’ brought a true apotheosis: opulent but with no trace of bombast, and with enough momentum kept in reserve for the closing orchestral peroration to properly stir the senses and galvanise the spirit.

A smattering of sour wind intonation aside, the CBSO’s playing was that of an orchestra whose individual and corporate prowess has continued to evolve in the years since Rattle helped put the Orchestra on the international map. Choral singing, too, left little to be desired in the conviction and alacrity of its response; but then, the CBSO choruses have taken the “Symphony of a Thousand” around the world and back in recent seasons, and enjoy an inside knowledge of the work second to none.

Those unable to be present at one of these performances can look forward to EMI’s recording (hopefully utilising John Pickard’s thoughtful assessment – reprinted from the 2002 performances – of a work still considered problematic in the context of Mahler’s symphonies as a whole): one, moreover, which seems likely to recapture the intensity and sense of occasion evident tonight.

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