When Dante Alighieri reached the climactic zenith of his Divine Comedy, his response to being faced with supernal transcendence was to admit defeat, conceding that “power failed high fantasy”, going beyond his abilities any longer to convey. For Gustav Mahler, this point of spiritual/ emotional/ philosophical overload permeates the entirety of his Eighth Symphony, composed in a frenzy of lakeside inspiration in the summer of 1906. There’s an inherent problem with this: when you set the bar so high at the outset, where is there left to go?

It’s an immense challenge, unique among his symphonies, but it’s not the only one. Mahler’s approach to structure brings together a pair of movements that seem to have very little in common: a 20-minute setting of the 9th-century hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, articulated via a consistent, full-throttle attitude, followed by a 55-minute rendition of the final scene of Goethe’s Faust, highly complex and variegated, dramatically and architecturally, coming about as close as Mahler ever got to the world of opera. The Eighth Symphony therefore hurls down the gauntlet to a conductor to make sense of this, and ultimately find a way through it that’s both structurally coherent and dramatically plausible. Adrian Partington, bringing the Three Choirs Festival to a tumultuous close with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Festival Chorus (joined on this occasion by all three cathedral choirs and a large youth choir) plus an octet of soloists, certainly made an extremely brave stab at it.

The first movement was an unequivocal triumph, choir and orchestra riding a wave of unchecked ebullience with the soloists, although occasionally somewhat drowned, nonetheless emerging above the tumult with surprising strength. From the beginning, and throughout both parts of the work, soprano Hye-Youn Lee set herself apart, projecting her voice with the precision and intensity of a laser. Partington navigated Mahler’s gear changes superbly here, completely transforming the mood while at the same time keeping the overall balance of elements perfectly transparent. This is simple to say, but considering the majority of this movement is like attempting to drive with the accelerator constantly pushed to the floor, it was no small achievement. Even the compressed overload of the conclusion maintained clarity, hurtling to a heart-stoppingly intense climax.

Perhaps the above remarks about the work’s challenges can be boiled down to a single issue: Mahler is at his most idealistic in the Eighth, and this proved very much more problematic for Partington through the second movement. Not at first, though; the opening evocation of mountains and forests was captivating, with a spacious, deeply immersive atmosphere. But from then on, the joins in Mahler’s symphonic fabric became more and more visible, and there was an increasing sense of the parts holding together more due to a combination of force and efficient management than through an inner musical conviction. This in no way prevented the music from attaining remarkable heights, particularly from some of the soloists. Gary Griffiths’ Pater Ecstaticus was utterly sublime, wedded perfectly to the orchestra’s sympathetic undulations, and while Stephan Loges’ Pater Profundus was more a demonstration of purpose than precision (frankly, he could have been singing anything), Peter Auty’s Doctor Marianus was genuinely awesome, soaring over the orchestra in a powerful (and exhausting) display of high romanticism. Arguably most compelling of all, despite its brevity, Jennifer France’s exquisite manifestation of the Mater Gloriosa, high in the organ loft, momentarily brought the entire world to an astounded halt at the hypnotic purity and beauty of her voice. The youth choir excelled itself, especially in their focussed counterpoint with the Angels, and throughout all of this, the Philharmonia fleshed out the intricate details of the continually shifting landscape seemingly effortlessly.

Partington’s emphasis on the drama contained in these small-scale sequences was laudable and effective in and of itself, introducing signs of rapture early on that later became richly expanded. Yet regarding the movement more broadly, rather than a seamless steady ascent into ever-increasing heights of ecstasy, what this conveyed was a series of somewhat disjunct episodes, clearly associated with each other but not fundamentally integrated. Taken as a whole, the performance certainly succeeded in bringing the house down (how could it not?), but to speak with true authority Mahler’s Eighth demands much more than mere volume.

Yet regardless of these impediments, it was a dazzling, Technicolor blaze of glory. It says something of both Mahler and all of this evening’s performers that even a flawed attempt to articulate transcendence is nonetheless a thought-provoking exhilaration for the heart, mind and soul. Maybe Dante shouldn’t have given up so easily: seeking to convey the ineffable, even with insurmountable difficulty, is still a wondrous thing to attempt.