Symphony of a Thousand
Our online blogger Nick Shave heads to the Royal Albert Hall for a First Night to remember
There can be few works more appropriate to the opening night of the BBC Proms than Mahler’s colossal Eighth Symphony.
The sheer scale of the work – billed the 'Symphony of a Thousand’ by the promoter of its premiere after the 1,029 performers who performed it 100 years ago – befits the size of both the BBC’s eight-week festival and its principal venue, the Royal Albert Hall. Of its 5,000 seats on the night, not one appeared empty.
The sight is quite something to behold: the BBC Symphony Chorus, augmented by the Crouch End Festival Chorus and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, flanked the walls on each side of the Royal Albert Hall’s organ, faces dotting a sea of black suits like stars in a blanket of sky. They were joined by the Choristers of Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and St Paul's Cathedral; the extended forces of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (including organ, celesta, grand piano and harmonium); eight soloists and lastly – to tirades of applause from an excited crowd – chief conductor, Jiři Bělohlávek.
According to the well-known story, Mahler poured out his work in a moment of epiphany, completing it in just eight weeks during the summer of 1906.
‘The Spiritus Creator took hold of me and shook me and drove me on… until my greatest work was done,’ he later said. His two-movement opus sets the great Latin hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (‘Come creator spirit!) in the first half, and the closing scene of Part 2 of Goethe's Faust in the second, exploring the common theme of attaining ‘grace’ in both.
From the outset, Bělohlávek’s forces summoned up the heavens with full force, delivering a blast of organ that left more than a few spectators looking stunned. The chorus and orchestra showed real commitment in the sequence of choruses and arias that followed – the choir, particularly impressive, always finding more when it was needed, whether in the climax of the first movement, or atmospheric pianissimos in the scene-setting (‘The forest sways, rocks lie heavy, roots cling….) that opens the second.
But if the Eighth is one of the largest works ever written, it is also one of the hardest to conduct, and its journey from Herculean displays of post-Beethovenian counterpoint in the first movement to grand opera-like arias in the second produced a few bumps (such as in the double fugue expositions of the first movement) along the way. Occasionally, in the second movement, too, Mahler’s luminous scoring seemed a little too brightly lit by over-powering brass.
But this did nothing to diminish the celebratory sense of occasion: the BBC Symphony’s high voltage playing was matched in spirit by the soloists – sopranos Mardi Byers, Twyla Robinson and Malin Christensson, mezzo-sopranos Stephanie Blythe and Kelley O’Connor, tenor Stefan Vinke, baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann and bass Tomasz Konieczny – who gave it everything.
If the festival continues in the spirit in which it has begun, then it will be one to remember.
You can listen to the First Night of the Proms on BBC iPlayer until Friday 23 July
Nick Shave is a freelance writer, critic, and regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. He has spent many a happy summer reviewing the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall