Against All the Odds Søndergård’s Proms ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ Wins in the End


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 11 – Mahler: Soloists, Southend Boys’ Choir, Southend Girls’ Choir, BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London 22.7.2018. (JPr)

Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Mahler – Symphony No.8 in E flat major, ‘Symphony of a Thousand’


Tamara Wilson (soprano)
Camilla Nylund (soprano)
Joélle Harvey (soprano)
Marianne Beate Kielland (mezzo-soprano)
Claudia Huckle (contralto)
Simon O’Neill (tenor)
Quinn Kelsey (baritone)
Morris Robinson (bass)

With the huge orchestral and choral forces required, as well as eight vocal soloists, Mahler’s mighty Eighth Symphony – more often ‘The Symphony of about 500’ but on this occasion more like 700 – is performed only rarely and it is always something special when it is. This performance has been one of the ‘hottest tickets’ of this year’s Proms season I understand.

In an otherwise very lucid programme essay by John Pickard I looked long and hard for any mention of Wagner and found, I believe, only one when he referred to how in Part II Mahler’s ‘respect for textual meaning’ has ‘its roots in the music dramas of Wagner.’ So, Wagner’s influence on Mahler is ignored once again and before assessing this performance I feel the need to remind readers what composer and Mahler authority David Matthews wrote in his ‘Mahler and Parsifal’: ‘The idea that a man can be redeemed by a woman’s self-sacrificing love is, of course, central to Wagner’s operas; it is also an idea that Mahler, as a Wagnerian Romantic, was only too willing to adopt. It was quite natural for him to cast Alma [his young wife] in a symbolic role (a role she was less able to play than Cosima Wagner). For both Wagner and Mahler, the idea has a common origin in Goethe’s Faust, and it was to the last scene of Faust that Mahler turned when, in his Eighth Symphony, he sought to combine the religious aspiration of his earlier symphonies with the human aspiration of the middle-period works in a huge synthesis … Mahler’s conception here of human sexual love as a spiritual force is very different from the orthodox Christian view presented in Parsifal, that redemption is only possible through ascetic self-denial … the conception of the Finale is quasi-operatic and is the nearest Mahler got to writing a Parsifal of his own’.

If ever there was a score to suggest the sort of opera Mahler might have written, his Eighth Symphony is certainly it. Yet what is it all about – supposing, of course, that this is a relevant question for any piece of classical music? Its mass-like first movement – a setting of the Latin hymn ‘Veni, creator spiritus’ – is something of a religious statement, yet understanding Mahler’s philosophy as we should, he could not have been unaware of the Romantic conception of Goethe’s Faust, from which Part II derives, as something more human and less spiritual. Mahler considered Alma his ‘Eternal-Feminine’ (Ewig-Weibliche) and the symphony goes on to marry the sacred and the secular into his personal declaration of love for her. It can be no surprise therefore that he ends up dedicating the work to Alma and she herself said that Mahler had ‘discovered a new term in music: an ethical-mystical humanity. He enriched the symbolism of music – which already included love, war, religion, nature and mankind – with Man as a lonely creature, unredeemed on earth and circling through the universe, a lost child waiting in silent meditation in the greenwood twilight for its father to come.’ Though this statement is probably of no more help with our own understanding of the work’s unconventional architecture as Stravinsky’s comment ‘was so much machinery really needed just to prove that two and two equals four?’ Perhaps the answer lies in the repeated chords heard when Pater Profundus in Part II calls for God’s mercy on his thoughts and we clearly hear references to Wagner’s Parsifal which – bringing this introduction full circle – clearly does appear to be Mahler’s inspiration for his Eighth Symphony as Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was for his Seventh, but that is another story.

In the best performances of the Eighth Symphony if the music resonates sufficiently with artistic anguish and spiritual yearning its power can be truly moving. Mahler himself described this work as one where ‘the experience of the music should be overwhelming, it should leave you feeling, however briefly, that this is unquestionably the greatest piece of music ever written’. An ‘experience’ this Eighth Symphony undoubtedly was although the choral ecstasy in Part I was intermittent and the soloists seemed under pressure because of the wall of sound behind them from an initial blast of the Grand Organ onwards. The Faust scene began with an immediate highlight of this performance and the deeply evocative extended scene-setting prelude for orchestra alone. The best moments continued to be either purely orchestral ones or those hair-raising tutti moments from soloists, BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Symphony and London Symphony Choruses, Southend Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs and BBC National Orchestra of Wales such as during the headlong race to the end of the work.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales did not disappoint though I am not sure how familiar they were with the music. Considering the huge number of performers in front of him their principal conductor Thomas Søndergård kept a remarkably tight rein on the thematic echoes and anticipated ascension of the second movement. Nevertheless, there was – for me at least – a lack of any real spirituality or sense of inwardness. For the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ it might just be a case of less is more and a performance on this huge scale with limited rehearsal time – with everyone together at the same time – cannot hope to be 100% successful. Don’t get me wrong Mahler did win in the end, but seemingly against all the odds.

There was much stentorian delivery from the experienced line-up of soloists in Part I though they were not helped by Søndergård’s somewhat unrelenting tempi. All came into their own during Part II when it was clear how the vocal soloists had been well chosen for their powers of projection. Simon O’Neill was a sturdy Doctor Marianus and invoked the Eternal Feminine using all his experience as one of the best Wagner tenors of his generation. Marianne Beate Kielland was a late replacement and brought controlled resonance to Mulier Samaritana. Quinn Kelsey’s Pater Ecstaticus was notable not only for his noble and attractive tone but also his clear diction. Maria Aegyptiaca lies low but held no fears for the rich-sounding Claudia Huckle. Tamara Wilson (Magna Peccatrix), Camilla Nylund (Una Poenitentium) and Morris Robinson (Pater Profundus) were each equally strong, yet it was Joélle Harvey – embodying Mahler’s Eternal Feminine as Mater Gloriosa – who radiantly issued the crowning invitation heavenward from the top of the Royal Albert Hall to lovely effect.

Jim Pritchard

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