Monday, 19 July 2010

Prom 1 - Mahler's 8th Symphony

Mahler's 8th symphony is a work that would seem to be ideal for the Royal Albert Hall. Mahler uses a huge orchestra, with quadruple wood-wind, a childrens choir plus two adult choruses. At its premiere in Munich it was claimed that 1000 people took park, where on earth did they put them all. At Friday's opening Prom there the members of the adult choruses numbered around 400 with 60 children and they just fitted comfortably into the choir areas behind the stage. Even then, the rear choristers would be a long way from conductor Jiri Belohlavek (I know, I sat there when, as part of the London Philharmonic Choir, I sang in Mahler 8 to open the 1986 Proms).

One of the glories of Friday's prom was the choral singing. The three choirs (BBC Symphony Chorus, Crouch End Festival Chorus and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs) sang with bright, clear brilliance, providing a keen focussed sound, with barely a hint of bawling. The tricky passages at the opening of part 2 were, as far as the foggy Albert Hall acoustic allowed, neatly and accurately placed. And the closing chorus mysticus was ravishing.

They were well supported by the orchestra, though Belohlavek seemed to have rather a no-nonsense, no time for lingering sort of attitude. This meant that the opening choral torrent worked well, but that the middle sections seemed to sag somewhat as they needed more cherishing. That said there was some lovely individual playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Regarding the soloists, I have rather mixed views. I must confess that I have never heard a performance where they seemed ideal, and too often heard live the voices seem to be straining overmuch. Both sopranos Mardi Byers and Twyla Robinson seemed to press their voices too hard, so that one turned rather sharp edged and the other seemed to vibrate over much above the stave. I am sure that, in more relaxed surroundings they would have sounded lovely. Only mezzo Stephanie Blythe seemed to be able to combine beauty of tone with volume. Tenor Stefan Vinke was a last minute replacement but seemed a bit taxed by the part. The other two male soloists Hanno Müller-Brachmann and Tomasz Konieczny contributed some fine, passionate singing.

There was, of course, one other soloists. Malin Cristensson appeared by the organ at the very end, the ravishing embodiment of Mater Gloriosa.

If I found the performance less than engrossing first half of part 2, it was more than made up with the life enhancing conclusion.

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