At the climax of very end of the first movement of Mahler’s vast Symphony no. 8, with soloists, choirs and orchestra going flat out, the conductor Peter Oundjian turned round and pointed his baton right at me. Actually, he was looking at my immediate neighbours, the extra brass forces asked to provide an exhilarating finish to both movements. This work requires such huge forces that any performance is a special event, and this was an exceptional and thrilling end to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s season.

Peter Oundjian © Sian Richards
Peter Oundjian
© Sian Richards

The work calls for two choirs, each divided into eight parts and a junior chorus. Singers from across Scotland filed into the Usher Hall organ gallery, the large RSNO Chorus augmented with singers from The City of Glasgow Chorus, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, all joined by the RSNO Junior Chorus. An augmented orchestra took to the stage, with nine horns spread right along the back row. Looking towards The Games in July, a strong line-up of eight soloists for this performance was picked from Commonwealth countries. There was a real sense of anticipation as Peter Oundjian raised his baton and Michael Bawtree, at the console of the splendid Usher Hall organ, played the massive Eb major chords to begin a magnificent evening of music.

After three instrumental symphonies, Mahler returned to choral forces as he wanted to tackle the final scene from Goethe’s Faust as Faust’s soul gets rescued from Méphistophélès and is taken up to heaven to receive absolution from the Virgin Mary. Apart from a lengthy orchestral introduction to the second movement, voices are woven into the fabric of this work. To set the scene of holy rapture, Mahler used the Latin Pentecostal hymn Veni creator spitritus arranged for huge forces in a first movement opener, awash with sound.

Although nicknamed “Symphony of a Thousand”, in Edinburgh there were just short of 400 performers, with the first movement belonging to the choirs who were nothing short of thrilling in the opening unison passages, passing antiphonal sounds across the hall and in hushed places too. The sound and diction was clear and bright, and apart from a tiny blip early on, completely together with the orchestra. It was not all sound and fury by any means, and more reflective passages were just as wonderful, the Junior Chorus providing extra welcome vocal colour. After the initial excitement, the music quietened down and the seven soloists took over different themes, generally blending well together. Canadian soprano Erin Wall clearly loved this work, barely referring to her score, her clear voice soaring above the multitude when required. New Zealand tenor Simon O’ Neill, while providing plenty of volume in the right places, sounded a little strained at times. Australian Caitlin Hulcup’s delicious mezzo oozed glorious warmth.    

The more reflective second movement allowed the orchestra to really shine out. The start depicted various landscapes from bleak and rocky to forests and a mountain gorge using sparse passages, rich chords and climaxes. After a choir and echo section, Canadian baritone Nathan Berg (standing in for an indisposed Luthando Qave) and New Zealand/Samoan bass Jonathan Lemalu took the story forward as Pater ecstaticus and Pater profundus. There were some exquisitely tender choral passages from the Angels and Blessed Boys, and eventually Magna Peccatrix, the Sinful Woman, passionately sung by Erin Wall, led the work into a different area as the music became more devotional. 

 It’s a long (and wonderful) wait for the final soloist to appear, and Sarah Tynan emerged at the back of the orchestra singing The Virgin Mary in a beautiful tone, allowing Faust’s soul into heaven, the core message of the symphony. 

Peter Oundjian was enjoying the evening, right on top of his choral forces, and inspiring the players to a brilliant performance, from the bold set pieces right down to light and delicate passages like just before the end of the second movement where there is a sudden calm with piano, harps, celeste, flutes and string quartet. As my brassy neighbours filed back in, ready to raise the roof in the final bars, I was glad to have caught this work live as it is seldom performed in Scotland.

 After seven years as Chorus Director of the RSNO Chorus, Timothy Dean leaves to pastures new. Taking his bow together with Christopher Bell, Chorus Director of the RSNO Junior Chorus, he leaves a legacy of a choir in clearly great shape for the future.