There’s no doubt about it, Gustav Mahler and the Royal Albert Hall are made for one another. More specifically, the composer’s “Symphony of a Thousand” is tailor-made for a building generously endowed with one of the largest pipe organs in the UK. Composed in a blaze of inspiration in the summer of 1906, Mahler’s extravagant requirements for two large choruses were amply fulfilled on this occasion by the combined vocal weight of the Philharmonia and Bournemouth Symphony Choruses, the City of London Choir, the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and the Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School. 

Mahler's “Symphony of a Thousand” in the Royal Albert Hall
© Andy Paradise

Beneath them, eight soloists slugged it out over an expanded Royal Philharmonic Orchestra including a complement of seven off-stage brass high above the singers. With over 400 voices and 100+ orchestral players, these impressive forces may not have been reached the much vaunted “Symphony of a Thousand”, named after its 1910 Munich premiere, but it was a roof-raising performance that Vasily Petrenko held together with sure-footed clarity and conviction.

Conviction from the massed choral forces might have been communicated with greater clarity at times, words periodically failing to cut through except in quieter, uncluttered passages and with soloists valiantly singing between the organ and the orchestra. Consequently, this listener sensed the symphony’s intimacy and universality, rather than felt any fully immersive experience, the work’s monumental paean to the spiritual, mystical and earthly power of love curiously uninvolving, its message blunted by the sheer mass of sound. The call to arms that opens Part One – a setting of the Latin hymn Veni creator spiritus – was hammered out, not least by the organ, its impact taking the ancient invocation by the scruff of the neck.  

Vasily Petrenko conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
© Andy Paradise

Mahler’s glorious opening statement generated intense drama, though not without moments of relief from its surging crescendos where Hostem repellas was especially visceral in its impact. Indeed, contrasts between massive choral and orchestral textures and almost chamber-like delicacy were impressively realised, and if intrusions from the organ seemed a little too obvious, Petrenko’s brisk tempi ensured forward momentum across its formal structure.

The hour-long Part Two – comprising the final scene from Goethe’s Faust – left a deeper impression thanks in part to its striking sonorities (woodwinds particularly eloquent) and well-projected solo contributions. Amongst these Sarah Wegener impressed in her Magna Peccatrix music, high notes soaring ecstatically and effortlessly. Elsewhere, Jacquelyn Wagner was an expressive Gretchen, while Claudia Huckle (Mary of Egypt) and Jennifer Johnston (Mulier Samaritana) both fashioned distinctive and involving accounts, the four of them well balanced too in ensemble passages. Soprano Regula Mühlemann (Mater Gloriosa) brought much dignity to her brief role. Vincent Wolfsteiner sounded remarkably at ease with the Heldentenor role that Mahler conceives for Doctor Marianus, bringing a true sense of line and shape to its bravura demands. No less musical or mellifluous was the warm baritone of Benedict Nelson (replacing an indisposed Michael Nagy) for Pater Ecstaticus, nor James Platt’s cavernous bass who provided plenty of gravitas for Pater Profundus.

Vasily Petrenko and vocal soloists
© Andy Paradise

Altogether, this was a powerful account that found its emotional peak in the closing pages where singing and playing reached a new communicative high. The Chorus Mysticus was intensely moving, so that by the end I was won over, as too were those in the audience who responded with a standing ovation.