Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 8.

Royal Festival Hall, London, England. Saturday 08-04-2017.

  • Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)
  • Judith Howarth (soprano)
  • Anne Schwanewilms (soprano)
  • Sofia Fomina (soprano)
  • Michaela Selinger (mezzo-soprano)
  • Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano)
  • Barry Banks (tenor)
  • Stephen Gadd (baritone)
  • Matthew Rose (bass)
  • London Philharmonic Choir
  • Tiffin Boys’ Choir
  • London Symphony Chorus
  • Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
  • London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO)
  • Belief and Beyond Belief Ideology Festival.
  • Introduction by writer and broadcaster Stephen Johnson (BBC) along with poet, novelist and biographer David Constantine.
  • In presence of Marina Fistoulari Mahler (1943)
  • Chahine Yavroyan, lighting designer.
  • Concert supported by an anonymous donor.

Performance London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, 2017. See also video.

The Guardian (09-04-2017)

LPO/Jurowski review – a daring, outstanding Mahler 8th.

5/5 Stars.

With 400 performers under his command, Vladimir Jurowski lavished care, attention and intelligence on the sonic enormity of Mahler’s symphony.

Performances of Gustav Mahler’s most ambitious symphony remain big events in every sense. Nothing Mahler wrote exhibits his claim that a symphony must contain the world more overtly. The annoying “Symphony of a Thousand” tag was early promotional hyperbole, but Vladimir Jurowski had at least 400 performers, including four choirs, eight soloists and the London Philharmonic under his control for this daringly conceived and outstandingly executed rendering of Mahler’s 8th.

I don’t recall another performance of the piece in which Mahler’s gigantic assertion of artistic creativity shared the bill with any other composition. Yet what a bold starter Jurowski selected before the Mahlerian main course. Thomas Tallis’s 1570 motet Spem in Alium comes from another era altogether and the very opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum. Yet it, too, is a work of astonishing ambition and affirmation. With Jurowski directing eight 20-strong choral groups that ringed the auditorium, this was not a Spem in Alium for performance purists. But the seamless leap into Mahler’s first movement summons of the creative spirit was, undeniably, an amazing moment.

Everything about the ensuing symphony, from the arrangement of the choral forces and soloists around the hall to the deftly deployed lighting, spoke of intelligent forethought harnessed to committed musicianship. Most impressive, and amid so much sonic enormity, was Jurowski’s constant care and control over dynamics, phrasing, balance and architecture. The orchestral detailing and choral moulding of the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust that takes up the symphony’s second part was compellingly done, with Judith Howarth and Anne Schwanewilms standing out in a strong group of soloists. But, lavishing care and attention on everything from delicate string portamentos to the brilliant timing of the final orchestral punch, this was very much Jurowski’s evening.

Martin Kettle

"A superb concert on all levels and I felt that previous doubts I have held about the piece where swept aside by the Jurowski's well-chosen tempi. The use of the RFH's space with the choirs and soloists and the inventive use of lighting were wonderful. A brilliant celebration of Jurowski's 10-years with the LPO."

"I saw Simon Rattle precede Mahler 8 with Lotti's Crucifixus a couple of years ago - but even he didn't think to go straight in to the Mahler. What a good idea. I'd have liked a little more forward momentum in Part 1, but I was pleased to see the tempi in Part 2 being so carefully related to each other (as they are in the score - they are mathematically related all the way through). That's especially hard to do in the extraordinary prelude to part 2, but I thought Jurowski handled it as well as I've heard it done."

"By far the best performance I've heard of Part II of the symphony. Jurowski really brought out the brittle, chamber character of Mahler's writing there. I wasn't as sure about Part I: 400 singers sounded a bit too much for the RFH space, and this affected the orchestra/choir balance more than a few times. Nothing that a good producer won't be able to put right in the recording, though. Side note: it's not everyday you get to have Andrew Smith, ex-Principal Percussion of the Philharmonia, pitching in as second timpanist! What a sound that fellow makes."

"Good comment. Might I ask, do you know if this performance is going to be released on CD? I know BBC Radio 3 plans to broadcast it but having it on CD would be compensation for being unable to obtain a ticket."

"Superb indeed. A masterclass in how to innovate with staple repertoire without capitulating to gimmickry. Spem in alium as a prelude, the placing of performers (apart from the brass section seated with bells at 90 degrees to the audience), the lighting, the unorthodox interval between the movements - all brilliant. The hushed choral entry at "alles vergängliche" was a moment I will never forget."

"It was superb. Jurowski deserves enormous credit for his commitment to the LPO here and over the last ten and more years of adventurous programming. The musicianship on display by all concerned was very special indeed."

Vladimir Jurowski. Performance London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, 2017.

Seen and Heard International (10-04-2017)

An Unforgettable Mahler 8 from Jurowski and the LPO

After everything, this was a remarkable reading, and a remarkable concert. I say “after everything” because of the many changes in soloists for the Mahler. Exeunt stage left Melanie Diener, Sarah Connolly, Anna Larsson, Torsten Kerl and Matthias Goerne, stars all. Diener and Kerl were still in the printed programme on the night. Enter in their place Judith Howarth, Michaela Selinger, Patricia Bardon, Barry Banks and Stephen Gadd. That we got there at all is something of a miracle; that we managed to work out who was singing was another.

But then, Mahler’s Eighth is about miracles. Its very heft stretches feasibility. It really deserves an (uninterrupted) evening all to itself, but in celebration of the London Philharmonic Choir’s 70th anniversary, we heard first Tallis’ Spem in alium, a work that itself stretched the perceived possibilities of its age. The choir spilled out to the sides of the stalls of the Festival Hall, enabling a sonic horseshoe of Renaissance polyphony in deliberately dimmed light. The performance of the Tallis was a fine one. No Tallis Scholars scholarship here, but a nicely blended, touching account of a masterwork.

Then came the blaze of light in both sound – the RFH organ resplendent and imposing – and in photons for the opening of the Mahler; one could justifiably call the effect “electric” in multiple senses. Yes, there was a “Lighting Designer”, Chahine Yavroyan, who at various times plunged parts of the stage into darkness, at others added colour effects. In tandem with this was the full use of the space, from the boxes (Anne Schwanewilms in Part II right up top, boys in Part II in boxes stage left, vocal soloists in front of the organ rather than at the back of the stage). The whole was about drama: is this a hybrid symphony/opera/oratorio? Jurowski’s approach honoured the drama as well as sculpting the structure exceptionally. But of course, Mahler’s music contains all the drama one needs …

Ticket Performance London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, 2017.

More serious, certainly less intellectually or emotionally stimulating, was whether one needed an interval between the two parts of the Mahler or whether that was to feed the hungry tills at the bar. It felt wrong, sacrilegious almost. There is a big change between the two parts (Latin to German, for one thing; Latin hymn to Goethe) but its contrast should surely be experienced as a juxtaposition. Or what the Tallis/Mahler electric shock judged enough excitement for one night?

Once underway though, the Mahler Symphony was given a splendid performance. Initially there seemed to be a Solti-like relentless drive to Jurowski’s way, coupled with an underlying lyricism. A contradiction in terms? Well, it worked. Which is more than can be said for the chorus redistributing itself mid-movement, like a huge colony of ants caught up in a ninth-century-hymn-meets-Mahler maelstrom. The children’s chorus (Tiffin Boys’ Choir) sang the first movement with hands cupped to mouths, which did seem to get their contribution across, but also helped with the visuals.

Jurowski’s way of delineating his textures so clearly was remarkable, and a massive bonus. The sheer massiveness of the piece was never in doubt (three sets of cymbals for the return of the opening); but we heard great detail and tenderness here, too. As to the soloists, Judith Howarth had the necessary high notes, Barry Banks gave his all enthusiastically (although he is no Bayreuth Heldentenor). Matthew Rose was the bedrock of the soloists, impeccably reliable, intensely musical and solid, and positively imperious in the second part as Pater Profundus. Balance was well judged between soloists and orchestra.

The second part (again in multiple senses as it was the second part of the concert too) found Jurowski’s conception truly justifying itself. The long orchestral introduction was magnificent, the clear result of much rehearsal. Here, God becomes Goddess (Nature), and Mahler reflects the wham-bang-thank-you-ma’am pleadings to the very male God/Holy Spirit of the first part for the more sensual, long-range approach of the Divine (Eternal) Feminine who is hymned at the very close. And Jurowski knows how to plan a climax. The organ turned purple – the most spiritual colour – and one assumes the link was that this is the true route to the Divine. Balance was generally exceptionally managed. Banks was lost in the mix at one point; and towards the end, at his ‘Blicket auf!’, one did rather feel the loss of a Heldentenor; Schwanewilms was positively radiant at ‘Er kommt zurück.’ It was great to see Patricia Bardon, most recently triumphant her role of Arsace in Handel’s Partenope at ENO, on form as Maria Aegyptiaca. As the end came into sight, orchestral and vocal balance was never sacrificed. Brass blazed from one of the highest boxes; the standing ovation from the audience following the close was inevitable.

Despite some doubts as to the wisdom of the actual format of the evening, this remains an unforgettable Mahler 8.

Colin Clarke

Festival logo: Belief and Beyond Belief - Ideology. Performance London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, 2017.

Sex, God and music: the symphony of a thousand ideas (10-04-2017)

For the first performances of his Eighth Symphony in Munich, Mahler conducted 11 rehearsals. He arranged for the bells of the city’s trams to be silenced during the concerts. He left nothing to chance. On Saturday night, for once, one felt that all concerned had done likewise.

In Munich the piece was billed as the Symphony of a Thousand. Symphony of 250, often as not, is what we get, including instrumentalists, unless you turn up to one of those get-your-uncle-in-to-sing affairs at the Royal Albert Hall. So the sight of 350 choristers filling up the choir and side stalls of the Royal Festival Hall was one to gladden the heart.

With 120 of them, principally the London Philharmonic Choir, Vladimir Jurowski led the 40-part motet of Thomas Tallis, Spem in alium. This Renaissance blockbuster was an inspired (if not original) choice of preface, serving to sharpen one’s palate for the feast of intricate counterpoint served up by Mahler. The shifting clouds of harmony were never given quite enough space in time to coalesce and disperse, but the LPC struck a fair imitation of a supersized Tallis Scholars, before turning on a sixpence to answer the Festival Hall organ’s opening blast with singing at full thrust and unfaltering composure throughout the 20-minute Part 1 of the symphony.

"Here I want my orchestra to be nothing but a large guitar"

Crammed into every inch of the main stage, the LPO and extras (three harps, two mandolins, harmonium and all) were laid out on the flat, against standard practice. Doubts that the brass would register when playing across the rest of the orchestra soon vanished. The idea – Jurowski’s, surely the composer’s too – was soon clear: having written for a nine-part choir, Mahler would have wanted us to hear his, and their, exacting work. The orchestra was there to decorate, embroider, illuminate. Anyone sitting within the main body of the stalls was engulfed by waves of focused choral sound from the London Philharmonic Choir, London Symphony Chorus and Choir of Clare College Cambridge. "My children’s choir must enter here like a knife through butter," Mahler insisted in rehearsals, and the Tiffin Boys Choir – as experienced a Mahler ensemble as any other on stage – did him proud.

Nor did the pace slacken or the intensity drop at the entry of the seven soloists: sopranos Judith Howarth and Anne Schwanewilms, altos Michaela Selinger and Patricia Bardon, tenor Barry Banks, bass-baritone Stephen Gadd and bass Matthew Rose. No mere lyrical interludes, their contributions carried forward the argument, which in this case is Mahler’s paean of praise to creativity itself, his Meistersinger no less than his Beethoven 9.

Indeed, for all that the noise was fun, the execution estimable, the most novel of the performance’s many merits was its complete understanding and unapologetic projection of a work so weird and so expansive that baffled exhilaration and intellectual scepticism are perfectly understandable reactions. With the aid of the lighting designer Chahine Yavroyan, Jurowski cleared away decades of category error. Is it a symphony? Is it a concert opera? A cantata, an oratorio, a saccharine circus from a self-obsessed part-time composer who’d finally jumped the shark? The Eighth is all of those things and none of them.

If the vaulting momentum of Part 1 had raised expectations that Jurowski would craft the piece as a disguised four-movement symphony, he confounded them at the opening of Part 2, the genre-bending setting of Goethe. The pulse if not the pace was kept up, the heterogeneous origins of the music laid bare: from plainsong, polyphony and Parsifal through to the composer's previous symphonies – even the tragic Sixth – in the latest, playful but irony-free chapter of a career-long roman-à-clef, a dance to the music of time whose hero is (as if you didn't know) Mahler himself.

Often seated in darkness, the choir ceded the limelight to soloists and to some of Mahler’s more outlandish orchestration. "Here I want my orchestra to be nothing but a large guitar" – another diligently recorded gem from the premiere rehearsals – and at one point half the wind section conspired to imitate a gigantic saxophone. Gadd as Pater Ecstaticus and Rose as Pater Profundus combined to present a swift sketch of Wotan, the hopeless optimist and rational pessimist. Liberated from the platform, stationed in an upper box, Schwanewilms was a glorious Gretchen who underlined to these Anglo-Saxon ears the correspondence between the composer’s very personal interpretation of Goethe, and Elgar’s Angel ushering Gerontius past angelic choruses. Faust himself was an invisible presence.

The Eighth, like Gerontius, has its purple patches, where ambition over-reaches achievement – an overripe trio for soprano and altos is no match for Strauss – but even such moments swung by, fired with a conviction that the piece is no bizarre Christian excursus from the agnostic travails of Mahler’s later music. Rather, in the final Chorus Mysticus there arose a tremendous sense of arrival at a point of pantheistic union. Assembled year by year, Jurowski’s Mahler cycle has steadily grown in stature, and this was perhaps its most revelatory instalment yet.

Peter Quantrill

Opera Today (10-04-2017)

Mahler Symphony no 8 : Jurowski, LPO, Royal Festival Hall, London

Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert. 

What it lacked in interpretive depth was made up for in being well performed, and more than compensated by the imaginative verve of the semi-staging and the way it highlighted structural ideas in this symphony.

Intriguing questions. Why, for example, preface a two- hour symphony with the ten-minute Thomas Tallis Spem in alium ? The motet is written for forty parts in eight groups of five voices, mirroring the five voice types of the soloists in the symphony. Tallis's text refers to the "Creator caeli et terrae", while Mahler refers to the hymn "Veni, Creator Spiritus" marking the Pentecost, where a divine flame appeared to the faithful, charging them with spreading the gospels to the world. Six hundred years separate the Maurus hymn from Tallis, but in Mahler, the ancient past is re-created for modern times. Thus a sense of primeval continuity, as if an Urlicht were descending upon those who perform and listen to the symphony. Hardly had the singing faded when Jurowski led the orchestra straight into the symphony, without pause. From exquisitely balanced unaccompanied harmonies to the explosive chords of the organ. The "Shock of the New" in every way, for Mahler's Symphony no 8 is unique in so many ways. Thus anointed, we were prepared for Mahler's journey into new territory

This juxtaposition of Tallis and Mahler came perhaps from the concept "Belief and Beyond Belief" the theme of the LPO's year-long series. By no means are all beliefs Christian. While the First Part of the symphony is shaped in the liturgy of the past, the Second Part, despite its references to saints, is secular, based on Goethe's Faust and on a highly unorthodox blend of lust, sin, death and redemption. Gretchen wasn't a virgin, yet Faust is saved by her intervention. Das Ewig-wiebliche, the "Eternal Feminine" for Mahler was entirely personal, and very much as odds with conventional morality.

Thus the logic in this case of inserting an interval between the First and Second Parts of the symphony, which otherwise should be sacrilege. The two Parts of the symphony are meant to be played together without a break, since the slow, quiet beginning of the Second Part acts as an important transition, a kind of "Purgatory" between one plane and another. To split the two parts to make way for a drinks interval is musically inappropriate - Mammon polluting the Temple - the prerogative of philistines. But in this performance, the interval made sense, because it emphasized that the difference between the two parts represents a shift in metaphysics more profound than musical logic. Context is everything, and hopefully audiences will be sophisticated enough to realize that this exception should not become the rule.

The name "Symphony of a Thousand" was not Mahler's idea, but a slogan created by the promoter of the premiere, who realized how the blockbuster aspects of the symphony could be marketed. Because of its sheer theatrical impact, this massive symphony will always be stunning. But as Mahler so explicitly states, the vast forces are bearers of "poetic thoughts", so powerful that they need ambitious expression. It's not spectacle for the sake of spectacle, not a circus for pulling stunts of sheer people management. While volume may be exciting, quantity most certainly is not more important than quality. Both times that I've heard Mahler's Eighth in the Royal Albert Hall, the results weren't convincing since the sound dissipated badly under the cavernous dome.

The Royal Festival Hall seats 2900, so a thousand players would be deafening. Fortunately, Jurowski got around the problem by spreading the singers around the performance space, instead of concentrated in one focal point, deafening audience and orchestra. Sometimes the choirs ranged around the side galleries, where they were heard clearly and to full effect. Wonderful hushed singing, barely above whisper: in a symphony as big as this, that's something special. When the choirs were positioned behind the orchestra, they operated as individual units for the most part until the glorious finale. What a pleasure it was to hear each group distinctly, as opposed to hearing them blended en masse. Much respect for them, singing so well and so clearly, despite rushing about. Incidentally, positioning the choirs in the side galleries resembled the "horseshoe" formation adopted in some early music ensembles The soloists at first appeared in a line between orchestra and choirs. the "sweet spot" in the Royal Festival Hall acoustic. This lessened the strain : no-one forced to shout to be heard.

In the Second Part, the soloists moved positions much more than they do normally. One expects the Mater Gloriosa to sing from on high like an angel, but the other singers moved around, too, especially the women, and Matthew Rose remained surrounded by the orchestra, his deep bass carrying well over the sounds around him. Choirs in motion, singers in motion, but not nearly as distracting as one might fear. The Second Part of this Symphony was inspired by art to which modern perspective did not apply. Thus figures float about disconnected to the landscapes behind them, as oddly as lions behaving like lambs. Similarly, Goethe's Faust depicts unnatural movement - flying through skies, ascension into heaven and so forth. The textures in Mahler's orchestration suggest multiple levels and layers and interesting combinations of instruments and voice. The symphony is constantly in motion. 

Throughout Mahler's Symphony no 8, images of light and illumination recur. In this performance, lighting effects (Chahine Yavroyan) were used to emphasize contrasts. Small lights, flickering above the music stands, helping the players follow the page while the hall was in darkness. Large spotlights , highlighting groups of choristers as they sang. The Royal Festival Hall organ, usually hidden behind a screen, was fully open, lit in rich shades of sapphire, alternating gold, and towards the end, silver and iridescence. The organist was James Sherlock. 

The presence of microphones in the hall suggested that a recording or broadcast may be available at some stage. All live performances have something extra: this Jurowski/LPO Mahler Symphony no 8 was unique, an experience never to forget.

Soloists were : Judith Howarth, Anne Schwanewilms, Sofia Fomina, Michaela Selinger, Patricia Bardon, Barry Banks, Stephen Gadd and Matthew Rose. Choirs were the London Philharmonic Choir, the London Symphony Chorus, the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and the Tiffin Boys' Choir.

Anne Ozorio

Classical Source (10-04-2017)

Belief & Beyond Belief – London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski – Spem in alium & Symphony of a Thousand

The best-made plans ... mine was to be at home on this day with a various-things-to-do tinkering agenda. Then, fairly last-minute, a friend offered me a ticket to see The Glass Menagerie (fine, a matinee, and I’d only be out for a few hours). However, fate running the show, the designated reviewer for this LPO concert phoned to advise illness (okay, as I am in London – now – and the Duke of York’s Theatre is a stone’s throw from the RFH, I’ll do the Mahler as well...). My day was meant to lead into the Detroit Symphony’s live Mahler 10 webcast (for UK viewers, at 1 o’clock in the morning). Menagerie, Mahler, Mahler...

So with Tennessee Williams’s play behind me, and buoyed by some tasty sustenance, the buck-stops-here place to be was the Royal Festival Hall. Mahler baulked at first-performance publicity terming his latest Symphony as being “... of a Thousand” but the Munich 1910 premiere, which Mahler conducted, and a soon-after second, drew the crowds in for a huge success. This LPO presentation (apt word) fielded roughly seven-hundred personnel, the Orchestra swelled by organ, three harps, celesta, two mandolin-players, harmonium, piano, a second timpanist (the recently retired Andrew Smith, for many years in the Philharmonia) and offstage brass – if nothing that Mahler didn’t lust after in his extravagant score. The combined choruses were spread wing-like from the choir area to the stalls surrounds, thus limiting the number of punters, and there were quite a few empty seats, surprisingly given it was a sold-out event, so maybe some seat-holders simply didn’t turn out or return tickets. 

Four of the vocal soloists had to be eleventh-hour replacements for ailing colleagues (including Sarah Connolly and Matthias Goerne as casualties), and we started with Spem in alium, by the circa composer, Thomas Tallis, born around 1505. Spem in alium is maybe from 1570 and its circumstances are little-known. What isn’t in doubt is that this forty-part Motet is a high-point of Renaissance a cappella polyphony, here shared by the Choir of Clare College and members of the London Philharmonic Choir, about one-hundred-and-twenty singers in six collectives, so three to a part, in half-surround-sound and high definition, wonderfully sung, creating wonderment, the music’s grandness and complexity genuflecting to one God ... then Vladimir Jurowski plunged straight into Mahler 8, and with a burst of bright light, a stunning moment of sounds and visuals. There was no lack of lyrical imploring, and although flexible with tempos, Jurowski sought and found a cohesive view of ‘Veni, creator spiritus’, given with Solti-like drive. If the hard-working strings (sixty-plus) didn’t always reach the ear when all were performing (minus the soprano Mahler adds for the second part), and the cupped-hands boys’ voices lacked cutting edge, the whole was exhilarating, and the coda, broadening ideally, was ecstatic.

Then an interval (sigh!) ... I’m saying nothing, save the chorus-members might disagree with my disquiet over an unwanted break, especially those who partook of the demanding Tallis as well. Anyway, once we'd reassembled, Jurowski’s conducting of Mahler’s setting of the Closing Scene of Goethe’s Faust was once again extraordinarily compelling. His pacing was totally convincing, transitions too, so nothing hung fire, and the singers and players pulled out all the stops, from the suspenseful and anguished orchestral introduction to the resounding roof-raising everyone-involved conclusion. Perspectives, which involved some manoeuvres for solo and choral singers, were well-judged, and the Scherzo-like passages were delightfully light and airy. There was an element of opera present rather than oratorio, Tristan came to mind, and while one might doubt the break between the Symphony’s two parts and the need for a lighting-design (dark, glaring, fading, spot, and with the organ’s pipes alternately doused mauve, pink and blue) – illuminated rather than illuminating – the music and this performance were glorious, and recorded for the LPO’s label, a very bankable prospect.

Colin Anderson

Music OMH Reviews (11-04-2017)

LPO / Jurowski @ Royal Festival Hall, London 8 April 2017

If this performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in E flat major from the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski was not entirely flawless, the few imperfections there were tended not to be strictly musical. Rather they pertained to how the work was presented, and even here the majority of ‘staging’ decisions worked very well. The few that did not were far from the result of laziness, as it would have been difficult to work out that the intended effect might not quite come across until witnessing it in the flesh.

The vast choral forces, comprising the London Philharmonic Choir, Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, London Symphony Chorus and Tiffin Boys’ Choir, occupied more than just the choir stalls. They also took up the audience slips on either side, coming right around to the doors at the top of the front stalls, where initially two further sections of twenty singers also stood. This is because the evening was to begin with Tallis’ Spem in alium as a way of contrasting two works that both, in their different ways, can inspire religious awe. They might also be classed as pieces that represent pinnacles in choral writing for their respective times, places and genres of music.

Spem in alium was performed by eight groups of twenty singers, thus averaging four to a part, that were situated in a semi-circle that ran from the top left of the front stalls, around the slips and the choir stalls, to the top right. This provided an excellent sense of ‘surround sound’, and the singing from the London Philharmonic Choir and Choir of Clare College, Cambridge was very strong with excellent tuning. The difficulty was that, from where I was sat, the first and eighth sections were by far the closest, and the fourth and fifth the furthest, so that as the parts came in one by one, those in the middle sections felt more muted. The experience would have varied in different parts of the hall but only a portion of the seats would have permitted the listener a balanced sound. Nevertheless, moments when the ‘exchanges’ between the parts were in just the right place for the positions of the singers were absolutely stunning.

At the end of the piece, Jurowski went straight into the Mahler without even fully lowering his baton to give an upbeat. The choice to do so was something of a mixed blessing as the surprise that was generated in terms of contrast between the two works was partly marred by only fully comprehending what had happened a second after it had done so, thus actually blunting the impact of the latter’s momentous opening. There were times in the first half when one felt sensory overload, which in many ways is what the piece strives for, but the sound sometimes became so overwhelming that it was difficult to delineate what was happening. The soloists were situated behind the orchestra, which was exactly the right place for them to be in Part II when the positioning of each as part of the overall experience was very important. In Part I, however, it did not help them to get their lines across, and they might have been heard to better effect at the front of the stage.

Nevertheless, if it seemed at the start as if Jurowski might drive the piece too hard, any such fears were allayed as soon as the first choral passage ended, and the orchestra revealed just how balanced and sensitive a sound it could produce. The control achieved then radiated out to the second choral section and beyond, which ensured that Part I ended on an absolute high. Interesting touches included placing some of the brass in audience boxes above the stage, and seeing the members of the Tiffin Boys’ Choir cup their hands to their mouths as they sang. This helped direct their sound while also introducing an appropriate element of theatricality.

Part II was focused and divine from start to finish, as the orchestra produced an exquisite sound as it delineated the lines perfectly. There was beautiful playing from the solo violin and solo viola, while the brass also excelled, ensuring that their sound was sufficiently striking, but also warm as it blended well with the rest of the orchestra. The choirs were all excellent with their enunciation proving particularly impressive.

The performance also featured lighting designs from Chahine Yavroyan, which could bathe the organ in gold, purple and silver hues, and light up different sections of the choirs as they sang. This ensured that as the orchestra played alone the hall was in relative darkness and we could focus in on the players, and that when all of the choirs sang it was lit to the full. When tenor Barry Banks sang of the ‘Mother of perfect purity’ more lights came up, and although this was because two further sections of the choir were about to sing, the move still introduced a sense of lightness in keeping with the words.

The soloists performed very well, which was no mean feat given that a sizeable number of them were eleventh hour replacements. For the second half, the majority were placed in an empty space in front of the organ between the two large choirs. This worked very well when, for example, sopranos Judith Howarth and Anne Schwanewilms and mezzo-soprano Michaela Selinger sang together, but it also worked for bass Matthew Rose to remain directly behind the orchestra where he had been in the first half.

Use was also made of the hall by placing the Tiffin Boys’ Choir in boxes on one side for Part II. Then Schwanewilms sang from one audience box and soprano Sofia Fomina from a higher one above the Royal Box, with their differing sounds also working well with their contrasting positions. This was both an excellent and thoughtful performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in E flat major in which, by virtue of the brilliance of their execution, the most quiet and reflective passages were just as overwhelming as the more obviously exuberant ones.

The Times (10-04-2017)

Review in the Times. Performance London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, 2017.