Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand) – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Reviewer: C L Delft

Composer: Gustav Mahler

Conductor: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

The merits of Mahler’s 8th Symphony – advertised here under its misleading nickname ‘The Symphony of a Thousand’ (a title not approved by the composer) – are still in some dispute. Some hold it as one of the early twentieth century’s most sublime works, a pantheistic hymn to what humanity can achieve at its best; others consider it a bombastic but largely empty spectacle, full of sound and fury signifying, if not exactly nothing, then a lot less than it claims. The vast forces that this two-part work calls for (Part One a setting of the medieval Catholic hymn ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’, Part Two a music-drama based on the final scene from Goethe’s Faust) as well as the huge amount of preparation required for performance (just the thought of co-ordinating the massed choirs, children’s choirs, soloists and off-stage bands would fatigue an ordinary mortal) make it a piece rarely performed and only then on special occasions – as here, to celebrate the one-hundredth birthday of Birmingham’s own City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO).

Reservations about the symphony itself aside – there is perhaps something slightly calculated about Mahler’s desire to overwhelm the listener with sudden dynamic contrasts, visceral orchestral tuttis and, occasionally, by sheer volume – there could be few more convincing or well-prepared performances than this one under the orchestra’s principal conductor, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, a musician who has proved herself absolutely the equal of her illustrious predecessors Rattle, Nelsons and Oramo. Gražinytė-Tyla presides over the event with complete authority – a daunting task and one that occasionally calls for a ringmaster as well as a conductor – delivering a reading of great cogency as well as impact. The detail in the massed orchestral chorales and soaring climaxes of Part One is matched by the limpid delicacy with which the strings and woodwinds sketch the ‘misty ravine’ in which the Faust section takes place and, by emphasising the structure of both parts, Gražinytė-Tyla gives what can sometimes seem a rather diffuse piece, a coherence that has eluded other performances.

In such a richly orchestrated work, the soloists can easily find themselves drowned out. Not so here: with sopranos Erin Wall, Natalya Romaniw and Katja Stuber and mezzos Karen Cargill and Alice Coote singing Goethe’s various holy mothers joined by tenor AJ Glueckert, baritone Roland Wood and bass Morris Robinson, the drama of the second part is both dramatically involving and deftly projected.

Of course, this symphony stands or falls by the contributions of its various choruses and those involved here – the CBSO’s own chorus, joined by its Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus, augmented by University of Birmingham Voices and the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, spilling out from the stage and into the seats on the mezzanine level – are not found wanting. The clarity and articulation from all departments – the bite of the consonants, the heft of the umlauts – is exemplary in a work where the text is all-important and the climax has the desired effect of ‘taking the roof right off’ Symphony Hall.

An impressive achievement, then, for an orchestra which had hoped to give Mahler 8 Its British premiere as long ago as 1921! That attempt was scuppered by concerns over cost and marketability. Close to a century later, the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ has at last found a home in the West Midlands.

Reviewed on 18 January 2020

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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