EIF 2018: Mahler Symphony No 8, Usher Hall, Review

Edinburgh Festival review
Rating (out of 5)
Show info
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Harding (conductor), Christopher Bell (chorus director)
Tamara Wilson (soprano) Ida Falk Winland (soprano) Hanna Husahr (soprano) Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano) Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano) Simon O'Neill (tenor) Christopher Maltman (baritone) Shenyang (bass) Members of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, The Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the National Youth Choir of Scotland and the National Girls Choir
Running time

Hailed in the EIF brochure as an ‘epic choral masterpiece’, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony was the final Usher Hall concert in this year’s International Festival programme. An astonishing composition, Mahler left compelled to write this masterpiece as soon as he had arrived at his Austrian summer house in June 1906, and had completed the score for this vast symphonic choral work by mid-August. A work of truly epic proportions, with eight soloists, it originally comprised one thousand singers, a huge brass section and additional musical instruments. Mahler described the Eighth Symphony as his “greatest achievement”, a sentiment mirrored by the public’s response to the premiere Mahler conducted in September 1910 – eight months before his premature death at the age of fifty.

At last night’s concert the platform was full to capacity with one hundred and sixteen musicians performing with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. And with not a single seat to spare, the organ gallery was packed with singers from the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, the National Youth Choir of Scotland and the National Girls Choir.. Lasting for a continuous eighty minutes, it is a huge challenge for a conductor to direct that volume of musicians and singers, but Daniel Harding, an acclaimed conductor and Music Director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, poured all his energy into conducting this epic choral work and succeeded in creating a dynamic performance.

It has an arresting introduction with a striking organ chord immediately followed by a full volume choir and then the orchestra. Written in two sections, with choral parts predominating, it was the first wholly choral symphony to be written. The first part uses the words of the Catholic invocation ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ (Come Creator Spirit) and the second part is the final scene in Goethe’s tragic play ‘Faust’. Christopher Bell, the Chorus Director, had coached the singers masterfully. The diction was superb and the variation of tones was at times sublime. With such a packed platform, it was difficult at times to see the soloists, but, despite the vast chorus, their individual voices resounded around the auditorium. It was a fabulous finale to this year’s EIF programme of classical music at the Usher Hall.