Esa-Pekka Salonen closed the Philharmonia's 2013-14 season with a highly intelligent and compelling account of Mahler's Symphony no. 8 in E flat major. After the riotous end to part one, the unfolding drama of Part II was painted on a gigantic scale, finally blossoming into a daringly slow hymn to the eternal feminine.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Katja Tähjä
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Katja Tähjä

Though by no means extravagant for a performance of this symphony, Salonen's orchestra of 120 and his 204 choristers made a suitably hall-shaking sound when required. The massed singers from the Philharmonia Voices and Rodolfus Choir neatly filled the choir seats, while the Tiffin Boys' Choir were placed centrally at the back of the stage. Soloists were divided with men near the timpani, stage left, and women behind the harps, stage right. The particularly wide spatial effect given by this arrangement, with the off-stage brass split either side of the chorus, made for an intensely immersive experience. The choral singing itself, especially crucial in Part I, was for the most part excellent, save for an occasional lapse in clarity of diction or an over-excitable entry. To retain such close control as they did for the late Chorus Mysticus, after such hearty exertions earlier on, was particularly impressive.

The Veni, creator hymn took off with explosive propulsion, the energy of which was carried into fairly bold early vocal solos. The wide separation of the soloists posed no threat to their sense of ensemble, with vocal lines interweaving comfortably across the stage. The most impressive of the eight was tenor Robert Dean Smith, whose heroic stamina and beautiful tone was a joy both in Part I and later as Doctor Marianus. Esa-Pekka Salonen, for his part, conducted with vigorous energy for much of Part I, making for some powerful tuttis, but also with great sensitivity to balancing his massed forces whilst keeping a close eye on the longer structure. He and the chorus particularly seemed to relish the Accende lumen sensibus line, and twice in Part I he gave large pull-backs in tempo, highlighting firstly the recap of Veni, creator and later the joyous climax of the movement.

It was a blazing finish, sopranos Judith Howarth and Elizabeth Llewellyn soaring to their top Cs with ease, and deeply stirring with the entry of offstage brass. The rich colour of the brass playing, never overblown but often thrilling, was a recurring feature of this performance and could easily have been taken for granted by the end. Similarly, the organ registrations did enough to show off the new Festival Hall organ, but the great instrument's presence never outstayed its welcome.

The contrast in the early minutes of Part II (a setting of the final part of Goethe's Faust) could scarcely have been greater. After a two minute pause, Salonen did a fine job of conjuring the rocky mountainside and preparing for the psychological drama of the scene in the early murmurings of “Alles vergängliche”. The pacing remained pleasingly wide spaced for the whole movement. Vocal solos were without exception attended to with great care, fine control and close interaction with their accompaniment. Robert Dean Smith continued to impress with his easily projecting voice and close interplay with solo horn, and Roland Wood and Stephen Gadd (Pater Ecstaticus and Profundus respectively) gave their contributions authoritatively. The Tiffin Boys' Choir sang with great joy and spriteliness, and with Howarth, Justina Gringyte and Karen Cargill, readily brought to mind the song-like innocence of parts of Mahler's earlier musical output.

As the drama progressed, Gretchen (Llewellyn), in begging for Faust's soul, created an attractively light and airy tone in partnership with mandolin. The words, crucially, came through with excellent clarity, and each line was elegantly shaped. The Mater Gloriosa (Lucy Crowe)'s two lines, perhaps the most important in the scene, were truly glorious. I was sorry to miss her earlier dramatic entrance behind me at the back of the side stalls, but when Salonen turned to cue her, this suddenly seemed a brilliant piece of staging. With utmost joy and spaciousness, the confirmation of Faust's redemption was beautifully delivered.

With the momentum slowly developing during a final word from Marianus, Salonen put down his baton and invited the chorus into a magically soft beginning of the Chorus Mysticus. The hushed, reverential tone here was reminiscent of the first appearance of the Resurrection hymn in the Second Symphony. With superb clarity, Salonen realised the music's sense of an inexorable rise, from the rocky mountainside to the revolving planets and suns Mahler later described. A very slow tempo was taken for this final celestial chorus, the huge, weighty blocks of sound a stark contrast to the triumph of part one. The last minutes were richly deserved, and provided an enormously satisfying end to the symphony both musically and dramatically.