Festival Music

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

five stars

IN ANY context, a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand is an epic undertaking. As the closing Usher Hall concert of the 2018 Edinburgh International Festival it brought together Festival friends the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under music director Daniel Harding, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus for its last concert in the inspirational tenure of chorus-master Christopher Bell, the National Youth Choir of Scotland’s National Girls Choir (created by Bell) representing the Year of Young People strand through the programme, and a line-up of eight superb soloists from the US, China and New Zealand as well as Scandinavia and rather nearer home (Arbroath). Scanning the packed platform and organ gallery, where space for percussionists at one side and keyboard players at the other was very tight and the extra brass players had to be content with making sure the bell of their instrument was in the auditorium, it was notable that a few of those were familiar faces from senior positions in our own orchestras. Some furniture movement was necessary to allow the soloists access to their position between players and choir, and their bows at the front of the stage at the end became an amusing assault course over or around the podium if you were one of those in a ball-gown.

Harding found a balance of all this that was the finest I have heard of the work, with every ingredient audible in exactly the right place – and every word, whether liturgical or from Goethe, beautifully enunciated. While true of all the soloists, in ensemble as well as solo (and the sequence of female voices in Part 2 has surely never been better sung), it was the choirs – and the role of Bell as their tutor – that rightly received the whoops and bellows of acclaim at the end. The chorus tenors rose to the challenges of their exposed entries brilliantly, the women were as impressive as they had been on Dvorak earlier in the Festival, and the use of girls’ voices, rather than a boys choir, was musically a triumph, whatever the composer actually specified. A sensational end to a year full of vocal delights.