EIF: Mahler Symphony No 8 Review

Rating (out of 5)
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BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Edinburgh Festival Chorus
Donald Runnicles (Conductor), Christopher Bell (Chorus master), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, RSNO Junior Chorus, Erin Wall (soprano), Hilevi Martinpelto (soprano), Nicola Cabell (soprano), Katarina Karneus (mezzo soprano), Catherine Wynn-Rogers (mezzo soprano), Simon O’Neill (tenor), Anthony Michaels-Moore (baritone), John Relyea (bass)
Running time

Mahler’s monumental “Symphony of a Thousand” is regarded as his finest composition but is rarely performed because of the vast number of performers involved. The Vienna premiere mustered a mere 300 so music lovers in the UK were fortunate in being able to hear the symphony performed twice within a couple of months by much larger forces.

The BBC Proms season opened in July with a performance involving around 500 musicians and singers and the Edinburgh Festival closed its Usher Hall concert programme with almost as large an ensemble.

Both performances involved BBC Symphony Orchestras, but having watched videos of the Proms effort I have no difficulty in saying the Usher Hall has the Albert Hall beaten hands down.

Perhaps it was the conductor Donald Runnicles rising to the challenge of showing a home-town audience how expertly he handles the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Perhaps it was the carefully chosen eight experienced soloists -- far superior to their London counterparts – or the well-drilled Edinburgh Festival Chorus, or the RSNO Junior Chorus.

Whatever the reason, from the stunning opening impact of the full-force Festival Chorus and soprano Erin Wall’s sensitive “Veni Creator Spiritus” to the transcendental “Komm Hebe dich” by Nicole Cabell from the heights of the Upper Circle, it was an emotion-packed evening.

Mahler did not follow the usual symphonic pattern in this two-part work -- the first, expansive earthly-bound settings of the opening hymn and the second, based on Goethe’s “Faust”, a Heaven bound vision.

He dedicated the symphony to his young wife Alma, who said later Mahler had discovered a new “ethical and mystical humanity” that enriched the symbolism of music.

For the Festival audience, this was an experience to be treasured. There were glitches, of course, but they did not detract from the overall effect.

Siting trombones and other powerful brass in the Dress Circle must have been ear-splitting for some. The Festival Chorus completely filled the Organ Gallery, so much so that the word perfect RSNO Junior Chorus had to stand on the steps at both sides.

As already said, the soloists were excellent and bass John Relyea was outstanding.

Mahler died just a few months after the Vienna premiere. This performance was a fitting tribute in the year marking the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Show times
One performance September 4

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