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PROMS 2002

PROM 30: Mahler, Symphony No. 8 in E flat major, RAH, 11th August 2002 Christine Brewer soprano; Soile Isokoski soprano; Rosemary Joshua soprano; Birgit Remmert mezzo-soprano; Jane Henschel mezzo-soprano; Jon Villars tenor; David Wilson-Johnson baritone; John Relyea bass; City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus; Toronto Children's Chorus; Sydney Philharmonia Choirs; London Symphony Chorus; City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus; National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain; Sir Simon Rattle, conductor (AR)


Mahler’s Eighth Symphony got its nickname from its first performance in Munich on 12th September 1910, with 1,029 performers, and consequently the concert promoter billed it as ‘Symphony of a Thousand’. Divided into two movements, the work comes close to being two different symphonies so diverse are their musical content. The first movement is a setting of the Latin hymn Veni, creator spiritus, and the second movement an edited version of the closing scene of Part 2 of Goethe‚s Faust.

Conducting this gigantic work for only the second time (the first time in Birmingham a couple of days earlier), Sir Simon Rattle handled the awesome task of marshalling the huge resources the work requires with consummate skill, inspiring his performers to rise to the heights demanded by Mahler’s monumental score. A group of distinguished international soloists was joined by choirs from three continents, and their glorious singing was beautifully complimented by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain playing with a dedication and enthusiasm sometimes lacking in the usual grizzled philharmonic veterans.

In Part 1 Mahler begins by invoking - in the sense of conjuring up - the creative spirit. This command is masculine and forceful, and Rattle conducted this first movement with such gusto and magnetic force that it felt like the climax of the work. His conducting was a combination of gymnastics and surgical skill, coaxing the NYO to produce sublime sounds. Rattle judged the dynamics and tempo of this movement to perfection, perceiving the score as a chamber symphony for a huge orchestra. Of particular note were the timpanist’s vigorous, firm playing and the well-disciplined brass who played poetically rather than sensationally. Rattle ended this movement as be began it, with a sheer elation which prompted one satisfied Promenader to shout "Yeaaaaah!"

From the sensational to the sublime, Part II deals with the feminine, ethereal sound-world - dealing with redemption and forgiveness. Here Rattle drew out the exquisite lyricism and hope implicit in the score and the sweet string passages were divinely played by the NYO. The harps and woodwind played with a combination of precision and poetry rarely heard.

The soloists were all in good voice, but worthy of note were Jon Villars as Dr. Marianus, whose passage ‘Lift your eyes to the redeeming gaze’‚ was very movingly sung, whilst Christine Brewer as Magna Peccatrix and David Wilson-Johnson as Pater Ecstaticus sang their roles superbly.  However, it was the massed choirs who really made the greatest impact of the evening. The male chorus members produced a hushed, fragmented, almost ghostly sound at the beginning of Part II, whilst the Toronto Children’s Chorus towards the end produced divinely spirited singing as the Blessed Boys.

Rattle mustered all these forces for the massive climactic ending, which created a sense of intoxicating fulfilment, sending the capacity audience into a frenzied ovation. Rattle was very self-effacing as he hid coyly behind the soloists who were themselves applauding the orchestra and chorus. The remarkable thing about this performance was the sheer polish and professionalism of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain who rose to the challenges of this work with an astonishing maturity. The cheers and applause were still in full flood as I reeled from the Royal Albert Hall exhausted and exhilarated, shaken and stirred.

Alex Russell


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