A performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony is always a special occasion, if only because of the huge forces it demands. The massed ranks of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the scarlet-clad girls' choir of the National Youth Choir of Scotland made a veritable wall of singers stretching from a stage packed with musicians to the organ console high above – a sight to gladden the heart of any lover of choral music. Just watching a choir of that size stand up together makes one quiver with anticipation, and their sound made the pulse race from the beginning, with the huge organ-backed fortissimo that is “Veni, creator spiritus”, Mahler's paean to the god of creation.

Daniel Harding © Aly Wright
Daniel Harding
© Aly Wright

That said, the very size of those forces – we may not have been at the “thousand” that the symphony's popular name indicates, but we were upwards of five hundred – poses its problems. The challenging task of keeping everything together fell to Daniel Harding. Under his leadership, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra produced some fine moments, indeed some moments of true excellence, but fell short of total coherence.

The top plaudits of the evening must go to chorus director Christopher Bell, because both choruses were magnificent from beginning to end. What you're most looking for from the choir in a Mahler 8, especially in the Part 1 hymn, is the ability to deliver a punch, which requires both absolute togetherness between singers and millisecond co-ordination between choir and orchestra. Add to that excellent intonation, some lovely quiter moments, especially when the singers take on the role of the angels in Part 2, and a fair fist at the challenging task of making the words intelligible, and this was a choral performance to savour.

The Swedish strings were crisp and well drilled throughout, producing a good sound with plenty of propulsive energy. Perhaps too much so: things did tend to get rather frantic. Mahler has so much going on in this score that there's always the danger of being overwhelmed by it all and of losing the thread, and there were many times when I felt the need for the music to relax down a bit so that I could regain track of where everything was heading.

The overall sense of direction was not helped by the decision to locate the soloists immediately below the choir, behind the orchestra. The Usher Hall's stage has a relatively gentle rake and is raised above the level of the stalls, so much of the audience – myself included – will not have been able to see the soloists clearly, and their sound was inevitably less distinct than if they had been standing in front. The point was proved early in Part 2, when baritone Christopher Maltman and bass Shenyang came to the front to deliver their solos: these were the most directly appealing solo passages of the evening.

Mahler 8 at the EIF © Aly Wright
Mahler 8 at the EIF
© Aly Wright

Soprano Tamara Wilson was the pick of a starry octet of soloists, giving us clear engagement with the text and a full, rich sound to drive through the orchestral wash. Simon O'Neill showed the true instincts of a Wagnerian Heldentenor to keep his strength in reserve for a superb last aria for “Doctor Marianus” (a.k.a Faust), making his plea for redemption to the Virgin. The “Mater Gloriosa” herself only gets a few lines, but Hanna Husáhr made a strong impression, singing them from high above, at the very top of the choir.

While the orchestral performance didn't cohere as much as I might have wished, there were still plenty of fine individual passages – a beautiful combination of high register flute, harp and celesta towards the end, many fine trumpet calls, a moment of true rapture before the entry of the Mater Gloriosa, heart-wringing accompaniment to Gretchen's “Neige, neige”. And if one thing is certain, Mahler knew how to write an ending for forces of this size. Harding, the orchestra and choir did absolute justice to the closing “Chrous Mysticus” and the massive return of the “Veni, creator spiritus” theme, leaving us with the sheer power of his music ringing in our ears. A fine close to the 2018 Edinburgh Festival and a properly special occasion.

***11