In commemoration of Gustav Mahler’s birth 150 years ago, the 2010 BBC Proms was launched in spectacular fashion with a performance of the composer’s monumental Eighth Symphony by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under conductor Jir Belohlvek.
With over 400 singers from the BBC Symphony Chorus, the Crouch End Festival Chorus, the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and choristers from St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral, the fervour of the opening hymn “Veni, Creator Spiritus” made quite an impact. The sheer volume of the choral sound threatened to overshadow the orchestra, but Belohlvek was careful to ensure that the forces were brought into balance as the symphony progressed. Indeed, care and refinement were hallmarks of Belohlvek’s performance throughout, somewhat at the expense of energy and excitement in Part One of the symphony.
Part Two was more successful, the atmospheric account of the prologue making it easy to imagine the swaying forest and silently prowling lions described in Goethe’s text. The soloists were uniformly excellent, with authoritative performances provided by mezzo-sopranos Stephanie Blythe and Kelley O’Connor, bass Tomasz Konieczny, bass-baritone Hanno Mller-Brachmann and tenor Stefan Vinke (a last minute replacement for Nikolai Schukoff). Best of all were the three sopranos, Mardi Byers ecstatic and powerful, Twyla Robinson warm and compelling, and Malin Christensson (in the brief part of Mater Gloriosa) pure and radiant. There was also some first-rate playing from the orchestra, notably woodwind, mandolin and principal horn.
Despite these positive features, however, Belohlvek didn’t quite meld Part Two into a coherent whole, and there were passages where greater degree of emotional fervour would not have gone amiss. During the final moments of the symphony, always a tricky passage to bring off, the offstage trumpets and trombones were not entirely secure, and the result was impressive rather than overwhelming.