In some respects, the Royal Albert Hall would seem to be the perfect home for Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in E flat major (1906-7), given that its vast interior provides adequate stalls to place all of the choirs behind the orchestra, and sufficient scope for the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ to be displayed in all its glory. At the same time, however, it possesses quite an unwieldy acoustic for a piece in which so much is often happening, so that what was rendered precisely at source does not always feel so exact when received at the back of the hall.
Given this, one of the most impressive features of this highly accomplished performance from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, which saw Thomas Søndergård bid farewell as its Principal Conductor, was the way in which the togetherness of all of the disparate performers was felt right across the hall. The opening with the organ and all of the choirs – the Southend Boys’ Choir and Southend Girls’ Choir, BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Symphony Chorus and London Symphony Chorus – was suitably overwhelming, although when seven of the soloists were introduced in the section beginning ‘Imple superna gratia’, the precision in timing was not matched by equal levels of precision in balance. This is almost certainly because such a vast space provided little opportunity for any of them to do more than focus on asserting their own voices to the full. Nevertheless, if the sound did not feel entirely balanced it did not mean it was blurred as the voices of sopranos Tamara Wilson and Camilla Nylund came across particularly clearly.
Such clarity also manifested itself in Part I in the light brushing effects of the strings, the violin solo and the sound of the tubular bells. Whereas on the first night of the Proms there was applause between movements of Holst’s The Planets, here there was not a single clap between Parts I and II, which had the benefit of maintaining a sense of continuity with the sound world that had already been conjured into life. In this way, the orchestral prelude to Part II was extremely persuasive as it featured some absolutely sublime wind playing. The soloists were strong across the board, with commanding contributions coming from Simon O’Neill, Quinn Kelsey and Morris Robinson. Marianne Beate Kielland, replacing the previously advertised Christine Rice, revealed immense roundedness and warmth in her mezzo-soprano, there was real depth and intrigue to Claudia Huckle’s own, and a spiritual radiance to Joélle Harvey’s soprano as she sang as Mater Gloriosa from the gallery.
In a performance, however, where the precision and clarity on display enabled the subtleties and nuances in the work to shine through at every stage, no element epitomised either the approach or the achievement more than the vast choral forces. The Southend Boys’ Choir and Southend Girls’ Choir were extremely impressive, while Part II’s first Chorus was especially well executed as the tenors, basses and then altos created a highly intriguing sound largely through the strength of their precision. The final Chorus Mysticus of Part II, like the end of Part I, saw a second conductor stand by the organ to aid everyone in watching. The sight of his and Søndergård’s arms moving as one represented visually what was achieved by orchestra, brass choir, choirs and soloists alike across the evening, as they moved together like a smooth machine to achieve an ending that was as brilliantly precise as it was truly overwhelming.