by John Earls pictures (c) Andy Paradise
Two years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, I wrote a piece for Arcana FM on ‘Mahler’s Eighth and coming out of COVID-19’. I concluded by saying that I wouldn’t get to see a performance of this epic ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ – and complete my personal Mahler live symphony cycle – any time soon, but that when I did it would have a very particular significance.
I certainly didn’t know that the performance would be by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko at the Royal Albert Hall on a Sunday afternoon in late October 2022, a concert that was itself rescheduled due to the pandemic.
And what a performance it was. The Royal Albert Hall could be said to be purpose built for this work, accommodating not just an expanded orchestra (including seven off-stage brass players in the gods) but three choirs, two boys’ choirs, eight soloists and a huge concert organ (the Royal Albert Hall’s was once the largest instrument in the world).
You get the full blast of the organ from the off with the tumultuous opening of Part 1’s Veni Creator Spiritus. It’s quite a ride from there on in, and Petrenko and the RPO handled it superbly all the way through to the powerful finale of Part 2’s setting of the end of Goethe’s Faust. This was not just about the big sections, the delicate moments were deftly done too.
But this work is really all about the singing, and the assembled choirs of the Philharmonia and Bournemouth Symphony Choruses and City of London Choir, as well as the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School were magnificent.
And it wasn’t just the massed voices, as glorious as they were. The soloists – and let’s name them (above): Sarah Wegener (Magna Peccatrix), Jacquelyn Wagner (Gretchen), Regula Mühlemann (Mater Gloriosa), Jennifer Johnston (Mulier Samaritana), Claudia Huckle (Mary of Egypt), Vincent Wolfsteiner (Doctor Marianus), Benedict Nelson (Pater Ecstaticus) and James Platt (Pater Profundus) – were excellent too.
I made the point in my earlier piece that there is something about the combination of the mass assembled forces performing together and being joined by an audience in an even bigger collective. I think the standing ovation from the near sell-out crowd at the end was testimony to this.
Mahler’s Eighth is definitely one of those pieces that you need to see performed live. I’m so glad that I finally did.
John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union and tweets at @john_earls