Prom 30: Symphony of a Thousand

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

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

City of Birmingham Youth Chorus
Toronto Children’s Choir
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Chorus
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Back in the 1980s, Sir Simon Rattle expressed major doubts over the intrinsic quality of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony – to an extent which made it clear that it would not be tackled, if at all, for a long while. Thus the present performances (the first at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on August 8) complete a Mahler traversal which began almost three decades ago when the then Royal Academy student conducted performances of the Second and Sixth Symphonies – a statement of intent if ever there was one.

This by way of saying that the performance here was among the most coherent and certainly the most symphonic imaginable. And at 76 minutes (23 and 53 minutes for each part) it was among the swiftest, though with no sense that Rattle was merely ’getting through it’ for the sake of rounding off his Mahler cycle. ’Part One’, the hymn ’Veni creator spiritus’, was fluid and exhilarating by turns. Such emphasis as there was centred on the orchestral passages – namely the crepuscular interlude and beatific writing either side of ’Infirma nostri corporis’ – that clarify the underlying structure. The fugue at ’Accende lumen sensibus’ was powerfully launched and as lucid as Mahler’s sometimes unrealistic demands warrant, culminating in a resplendent return to the main theme and a driving, though never overdriven, coda.

With its sectional structure and unwieldy conflation of opera and dramatic cantata, the setting of the final scene from Goethe’s Faust which constitutes ’Part Two’ can seem weighed down by its own portentousness. Right from the outset, however, Rattle found the ideal tempo to accommodate its continual transition from earthly uncertainty to heavenly fulfilment. The lengthy orchestral introduction fused mystery and passion, the chorus entering almost imperceptibly and with tension maintained until the soaring lines of Pater Ecstaticus bring about an emotional sea-change.

Well integrated as an ensemble in ’Part One’, the soloists made the most of their opportunities to shine. David Wilson-Johnson was soulful as Pater Ecstaticus, John Relyea excelled in the rhetorical soul-searching of Pater Profundis, while the Doctor Marianus of Jon Villars was ardent if a little uneven in phrasing. Christine Brewer, Birgit Remmert and Jane Henschel were well matched in tone and character as Magna Peccatrix, Mulier Samaritana and Maria Aegyptiaca; Soile Isokoski brought a chaste quality to the implorations of Una Poenitentium, and Rosemary Joshua’s offstage Mater Gloriosa was suitably transcendent. Rattle ensured the children’s choirs had character without tweeness (was Richard Rodgers familiar with their entry at ’Er überwächst uns schon’?), while the final ’Chorus Mysticus’ brought a true apotheosis – opulent but with no trace of bombast.

Mahler Eight is among the few works capable of filling the Royal Albert Hall, and the National Youth Orchestra is among the few outfits which can be relied upon to meet the composer’s demands down to the last desk. Suffice to say that such rough edges and fallibilities as there were detracted little from the conviction and alacrity of their response, and it was right that outgoing Director Jill White joined the conductor, soloists and chorus masters to share in the applause. Rattle will be recording the work in Birmingham a couple of years of hence, but it will be difficult to recapture the intensity and sense of attainment present on this occasion.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Friday, 16 August, at 2 o’clock

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