Is there a hint of scepticism in the words that bookend Mahler’s colossal Eighth? Not only does the sacred text of Part One give way to the profane Faust excerpt of Part Two, but the symphony’s great opening petition, “Veni, Creator Spiritus” (“Come, Creator Spirit”), is countered 85 minutes later by “Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis” (“Everything transitory is just an image”). So the Creator Spirit didn’t visit us after all; we must raise ourselves to a higher sphere and find it for ourselves.

The CBSO performs Mahler's <i>Symphony no. 8</i> at Birmingham Symphony Hall © Andrew Fox
The CBSO performs Mahler's Symphony no. 8 at Birmingham Symphony Hall
© Andrew Fox

Yet taken as a whole, the “Symphony of a Thousand” amounts to a hymn of praise like no other and a throng of performers filled Symphony Hall’s concert platform and borrowed swathes of its auditorium in order to engulf Birmingham’s weekend audiences in a crucible of rapture. It is seen by some as a problem work, a non-symphony and a folly on a par with Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, to the extent that Iván Fischer has declined even to include it in his recorded Mahler cycle. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla stands at the opposite end of this scale. She approached the Eighth as she might a classical score, with a clear vision of the music’s structure and a plan to free the life that teems beneath its mighty vaults.

Symphony Hall proved a happy home for this work. Sufficiently resonant to handle its dynamic extremes yet neither cavernous nor hollow thanks to the building’s marvellous acoustic, it complemented the conductor’s approach. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra responded magnificently to its music director and its members almost convinced me that they had this music in their DNA – which sheer lack of opportunity would suggest they don’t.

The female soloists were a connoisseur’s roster. Erin Wall, Natalya Romaniw, Karen Cargill and Alice Coote were all on sublime form and negotiated the music’s various challenges with aplomb and beauty, while Katja Stuber’s voice floated seraphically if briefly on high as Mater Gloriosa. The men were almost their equals, with Roland Wood in priestly voice as Pater Ecstaticus and the splendid bass Morris Robinson underused (by Mahler) as Pater Profundus. Only the tenor A J Glueckert was fractionally below par, tentative rather than assertive in Mahler’s more elaborate sections, even though his voice rang true.

In Simon Halsey the CBSO is blest with one of the best chorus directors currently working, and on this occasion the CBSO Chorus combined with another of his ensembles, the University of Birmingham Voices, together with the visiting Baltimore Choral Arts Society, to create the illusion (if not the reality) of a thousand voices. Episodes of finesse and delicacy were every bit as impressive as the work’s deafening climaxes. Indeed, the only glitch to the choral performance was the orchestra’s perplexing solution to Mahler’s children’s choir parts. The CBSO Youth Chorus is actually a choir for young women aged 13-18, while the CBSO Children’s Chorus struggled to be heard at all. (Heave those shoulders! Expand that thorax! Open those lungs!). As a result, the moments when Mahler called for a new choral texture to pierce through the sound picture, for example at “Accende lumen sensibus”, went for nothing: all we got was more of the same.

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