Two years ago, a pared-down chamber Royal Scottish National Orchestra streamed Mahler’s Seventh Symphony at the Edinburgh International Festival from an empty Festival Theatre. Bravely titled “My Light Shines On”, everyone wondered how long it would be before a live audience could hear a Mahler symphony again indoors. That time has finally arrived as the RSNO, with a hundred players on stage, members of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the RSNO Youth Chorus, packed into the Usher Hall for Mahler’s huge Third Symphony, an event in itself. To add to an already special occasion, six ‘Forever Bells’ on loan from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic gleamed on their own platform, making this the first time this work has been heard in Scotland with real church bells, as the composer intended.

Members of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, the RSNO Junior Chorus and RSNO
© Andrew Perry

There was a Liverpudlian connection for the world premiere: For Zoe, commissioned from Sir James MacMillan, commemorating Zoe Kitson who played cor anglais with the RSNO before moving to the RLPO, and who died in February. Hushed harmonics on the violins were an ethereal presence before cascading to the cellos as a plaintive cor anglais solo emerged. Only a few minutes long, but as the high violins vanished into the ether, a beautiful gesture of remembrance.

After a respectful silence, we were straight into Mahler’s incredible journey, abundant with nature, glimpsing the heavens and its depiction of exquisite love. The colossal first movement started with purpose, nine horns stridently heralding summer’s arrival, but instantly the music turned mysterious with a low growl in the brass, cellos and basses digging in fearsomely as if winter was not quite done yet. Alpine weather changes fast and Thomas Søndergård caught the mercurial moods perfectly, a soft bass drum heralding changes in a movement where the music stubbornly refuses to settle. The trombone solo was hauntingly mournful, contrasting with dancing strings as they introduced the march, Søndergård’s elbows flexing playfully. In a series of sound pictures, there are energetic highlights of the clarinets blowing cheekily over their stands, four shrieking piccolos and a three crash cymbal climax, but Søndergård was not afraid to shade the players down to moments of quiet intensity and sunny times, judging the pace perfectly as the music turned raucous, the jaunty summer march acquiring a military edge before a thrilling big finish.

Thomas Søndergård conducts the RSNO
© Andrew Perry

Flowers blossomed, soft strings and oboe breathed perfumed textures as a rustic dance began with a mischievous clarinet setting the scene, a rute to beat the bass drum adding texture. As the music swelled, Søndergård, toes at the very edge of the podium, leant right over the strings urging them on. Lively woodwinds in the Scherzo were interrupted by the off-stage posthorn, the players in a delicate balance of mountain mist.

Linda Watson, Thomas Søndergård and the RSNO
© Andrew Perry

Linda Watson was well suited to Nietzche’s O Mensch from Thus Spake Zarathustra, her warm mezzo taking us from a troubling deep dream to joyous delight, the sliding oboe motif an insistent warning. It’s a long sit from warm up for the choirs, and a short sing, but as the church bells chimed, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus upper voices sang with character, but were upstaged by the excellent RSNO Youth Chorus who, off copy, sang with refreshing sparkle like a clear mountain stream. Finally Søndergård, moving from men and angels to love, maintained the momentum in the long slow movement, building the music through its series of climaxes to a blazing finish, the two timpani players stupendous at the end. “The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” Mahler’s epic words echoed how the audience felt as Søndergård brought his forces to their feet.