The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra divides its concerts in London between the halls of the Royal Festival, Cadogan and Royal Albert, and the highlights of its concerts this season at the RAH are the performance of Mahler’s three choral symphonies, conducted by his musical director, Vasily Petrenko. The Second and Third will follow in the new year, but Petrenko started her miniseries with the greatest of the trio, the Eighth Symphony. It is one of the few pieces in the repertoire that ideally fits the size of the RAH and, from the massive organ chord that launches the opening hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, the impressive performance of the RPO, with around 400 voices in the choir, seven soloists and an orchestra of over 100 musicians, it sure sounded like it belonged to that place.
Petrenko didn’t exaggerate with size; there was no sense of basking in the pure weight of sound for its own sake.
Petrenko, however, did not exaggerate with size; there was no sense of basking in the pure weight of sound for its own sake. Times were always fast, the plots agile and clear (almost angularly expressionist in some episodes of the first part), every detail carefully defined. In the second part, based on the final scene of Goethe’s Faust, Petrenko seemed scrupulous in tracing the links between Mahler’s score and some of his models: Wagner’s Parsifal in the orchestral prelude, his Wunderhorn works in music for the angels and the blessed Boys.
But creating a compelling dramatic link between that extended setting and the anthem that precedes it proved as elusive as ever. The choral singing (the combined forces of the Philharmonia and Bournemouth Symphony choirs, the choirs of the City of London and the Tiffin Boys and the Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School) was impressive and glorious, the soloists absolutely safe. Sarah Wegener was Magna Peccatrix, Jacquelyn Wagner was a rising Gretchen, and Regula Mühlemann made the most of her brief contribution as Mater Gloriosa. Jennifer Johnston was Mulier Samaritana and Claudia Huckle the warm Mary of Egypt. Vincent Wolfsteiner heroically faced the demanding tenor by writing for Doctor Marianus; Benedict Nelson and James Platt were absolutely sure as Pater Ecstaticus and Pater Profundus respectively. But despite the electrifying effects, it was all curiously uninspiring, although this was due more to Mahler, it is suspected, than to anything else in Petrenko’s performance.