Full Throttle in First, Sensitivity in Second Movement of Mahler’s Eighth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler,  Symphony No. 8: Erin Wall, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Sarah Tynan (sopranos); Caitlin Hulcup, Susan Platts (mezzos); Simon O’Neill (tenor); Nathan Berg (baritone); Jonathan Lemalu (bass); RSNO Chorus & Junior Chorus; Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 30.5.2014 (SRT)

Ending the season with Mahler’s mighty Eighty Symphony is a declaration of intent from any orchestra, and a sign of confidence.  Furthermore, it can have escaped the intention of few that all eight of the soloists come from Commonwealth countries, with only a few weeks to go before the start of the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.  However, it’s one of the most demanding works in the repertoire (Peter Oundjian looked exhausted once it had finished) and carries a lot of hazards, interpretative as well as technical, and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the way they were tackled tonight.

The opening was certainly high on excitement, with a choral rush that was powerful, strong and, most of all, strikingly loud.  That in itself is a statement of intent about where the music is going, but the problem with beginning at maximum throttle is that it doesn’t really leave you anywhere to go, and I found the first part, in particular, rather lacking in light and shade.  The highlights were, certainly, the big choral climaxes (Accende lumen sensibus was another between-the-eyeballs moment) but they didn’t stand out as much as they should because so much else was perpetuated at that level.  Even Mahler’s gentler moments, such as the chorus’ singing of Imple superna gratia had a forward-thrusting nature to them that I found a little too pressing, and it didn’t help that the lapses of ensemble, inevitable in a work like this, were rather too frequent.  The biggest problem came towards the end of the first movement’s development section when everyone was going at (especially) full pelt and a noticeable couple of beats began to separate different sections of the performance.  I began to wonder if rehearsal time had proved insufficient to sort out things like this (a couple of Is-this-the-bit-where-we-stand-up? moments from the chorus only reinforced this), and I got to the end of Part One feeling as though I had been caught in the headlights of a slightly bumpy ride.

However, just as I was beginning to worry that the concert’s ambition had outstripped its resources, the orchestra gave a spellbinding, almost cinematic interpretation of the opening of Part Two, which was everything the first part was not: delicate, sensitive, graded, and full of light and shade.  It felt almost as though the orchestra, shorn of all the hangers-on, were getting on with what they do best and doing a brilliant job of it, especially the pulsating tone that was flowing out of the strings.  From there things began to stabilise a little, and Oundjian was good at shaping the movement’s perpetual upward trajectory, culminating in a suitably thunderous ending.  For all my doubts, the final half-hour or so was very strong, from the moment that the Mater Gloriosa’ theme first appears on the violins, harmonium and glittering harps.  That was the highlight of the whole performance for me: radiant violin tone set against an accompaniment that judged to a tee its place in the whole, and that ushered in a final act where everything finally came together.

The soloists were led by a gloriously full soprano in Erin Wall and a really knockout tenor part from Simon O’Neill.  I’ve been a bit alarmed by the nasal quality of his voice in some of the things I’ve heard him in recently, but tonight he used that to brilliant effect to cut through and sail over the orchestral texture.  Nathan Berg, a late replacement, sounded great in his Pater ecstaticus solo, unlike Jonathan Lemalu who growled his way through the Pater profundus episode and sounded, I’m sorry to say, pretty dreadful.  Elizabeth Llewellyn lent important colour to the role of the penitent, and Sarah Tynan sang the Mater Gloriosa’s brief but all-important music with a tone that was not just beautiful but genuinely inviting.  Good as was Susan Platts, she was eclipsed by some sumptuous tone from Caitlin Hulcup.

The RSNO Chorus said goodbye to its director, Timothy Dean, with a performance that was earnest and hard-working but short of triumphant.  The tenors sounded noticeably stretched in some of the high writing, and the tricky opening of Part Two lacked confidence.  However, the ladies sounded bright and lively at Gerettet ist das edle Glied, and that whole Scherzo-like middle section was probably the most consistently accomplished singing the chorus gave all night.  The Junior Chorus sounded super, especially as the cheeky Blessed Boys, and they recovered well after coming dangerously close to missing their all-important Gloria Patri Domino.

Booking is now open for the RSNO’s 2014-15 season.  For full details of this, as well as their summer concerts, click here.

Simon Thompson

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