Review: Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’

Posted on May 10, 2010

The Halle and BBC Philharmonic’s Mahler Triumph reviewed by Citylife

“It was the big one. Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a thousand’ – in practice, the symphony of just-over-half-a-thousand, but pretty spectacular nonetheless – performed jointly by the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic, with an army of choral singers, in the joint series marking the composer’s 150th birthday.

Sold out for months, the concert had its own sense of expectancy, with an ovation at the beginning simply for our own organ virtuoso Jonathan Scott, who came on, microphone in hand, as the warm-up man for the organist of Notre-Dame in Paris, Olivier Latry.

When M. Latry embarked on his 20-minute improvisation on the plainchant theme of Veni Creator Spiritus, it was clear that his role, as he saw it, was at least partly to explore the enormous range of colours available from the Bridgewater Hall’s Marcussen organ, including a striking exploitation of the lower range of the mutation stops.

His harmonic language owes much to Messiaen, and he is extraordinarily fond of building his textures on ostinati, with exciting-sounding results.

After one man controlling 5,500 pipes, it was down to one man to control 500-plus performers, in Mahler’s eight symphony. And the challenge facing Sir Mark Elder was not merely to co-ordinate those vast forces and

harness the huge sound they could make, but to deliver a musical result out of it all.

The eighth, is after all, a one-off among the Mahler symphonies, with almost none of the structural cohesion we think of as ‘symphonic’. It’s really a big cantata followed by a quasi-operatic scene, but it’s packed with counterpoint and telling details which must emerge from the swirl of sound.

Sir Mark’s instincts are always theatrical, and they served him well here. He burst into the opening (‘impetuoso’, as it says in the score), and never let up on fundamental impetus.”

To read Robert Beale’s whole review click here