BBC Proms 11 was gigantic. Gustav Mahler wrote his Eighth Symphony (1906-07), often called his ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ for a massive orchestra. On Sunday night, the Royal Albert Hall encompassed an organ, sixty string players, a harmonium, five bassoons, a double-sized horn section, two harps, a piano, two mandolins, a double chorus, eight soloists, a boys’ choir and a girl’s choir. (Phew!) In my experience, this was the first time I had ever seen a concert of this scale: roughly 600 to 700 musicians and singers performing together on one grand stage.

For this Prom, it was the bravado of Thomas Søndergård who gave a controlled and impactful performance as he conducted the athletic and lively BBC National Orchestra of Wales. It is Søndergård’s last and, perhaps, most challenging performance as Principal Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. If you ever wanted to test how resilient the BBC National Orchestra of Wales were, this was the ideal performance to see them flex their orchestral muscle. They were accompanied by the scintillating voices of the BBC National Chorus of Wales, the London Symphony Chorus, the BBC Symphony Chorus, and the Southend Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the BBC National Chorus of Wales, the London Symphony Chorus, the BBC Symphony Chorus, and the Southend Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs at the Royal Albert Hall, 22 July 2018. Photo credit: Mary Grace Nguyen.

It is often hard to describe Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in simple terms as it incorporates two separate parts with various distinct tones. His ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ was influenced by a range of musical, literary and philosophical traditions, from old-style polyphony, Goethe, Baroque-style, Latin hymn, and even Wagner. In Mahler’s mind, the body of his monumental work must ‘encompass everything’ as he once wrote, ‘a symphony must be like the world.’

From the outset, his ‘Veni, creator spiritus’ sounds like a dramatic cantata or oratorio. One cannot deny how moving and symphonic Mahler’s music is here. The second part sets the scene of the final act of Goethe’s Faust. This is the movement where the orchestral score turns mystical – slightly more human, yet lusciously lyrical. Although the words are framed in a similar way as ‘Veni, creator spiritus’, the tone in the second part is much more feminine, or best described in German as Ewig-Weibliche (Eternal-Feminine.)

Thomas Søndergård with Simon O’Neill, Marianne Beate Kielland, Quinn Kelsey, Claudia Huckle, Tamara Wilson, Camilla Nylund and Morris Robinson at the Royal Albert Hall, 22 July 2018. Photo credit: Mary Grace Nguyen.

At first I feared these 600 voices, combined, would clash, yet this didn’t seem to be a problem. Almost magically all singers, of the BBC National Chorus of Wales, the London Symphony Chorus, the BBC Symphony Chorus, the Southend Boys’ and Girls’ Choir and the eight soloists, managed to make it work. We have to thank Mahler for creating such a characteristically demanding symphony and give credit to conductors like Søndergård for rising to the challenge. There were radiant and graceful singing, all round, from the eight soloists as well. Together Simon O’Neill, Joélle Harvey, Marianne Beate Kielland, Quinn Kelsey, Claudia Huckle, Tamara Wilson, Camilla Nylund and Morris Robinson embraced hints of the sacred and divine.

Mahler’s symphonic score is continually fearless and bold – it persistently aims to make powerful statements, one after the after, and this is the main reason why Mahler’s Eighth is exceptional. The music certainly wowed and impressed many this evening, enough so that the acoustic walls of the Royal Albert Hall manged to withstand the vibrations. However, that said, not everything is perfect about Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the BBC National Chorus of Wales, the London Symphony Chorus, the BBC Symphony Chorus, and the Southend Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs at the Royal Albert Hall, 22 July 2018. Photo credit: Mary Grace Nguyen.

As a gargantuan work, it felt rather overwhelming at times. The pace was fast and the singers seemed to have a tough job of keeping up with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and vice versa. With so much going on vocally and musically, it’s hard to pick and choose who or what to focus on. Plus, there isn’t a particular section of the symphony or chorus singing, I found catchy and memorable. Yet, I do recall how the music made the audience, including myself, feel – mostly excited.

One cannot question how much blood, sweat and tears were poured into creating this phenomenal performance. For me, there were moments of soothing musical therapy, even if the music was forceful in some parts. If you ever wanted to know how Mahler’s music would have sounded as an opera, his Eighth Symphony would suggest how great it could have been.

BBC Proms 11 was shown at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday 22 July, 7 pm. If you want to listen to a recording of the performance broadcasted live at BBC Radio 3, please click here. For more information on the BBC Proms 2018 season, go here

(I was provided a press ticket to review the show.)

[Header image: Thomas Søndergård with Simon O’Neill, Joélle Harvey, Marianne Beate Kielland, Quinn Kelsey, Claudia Huckle, Tamara Wilson, Camilla Nylund and Morris Robinson at the Royal Albert Hall, 22 July 2018. Photo credit: Mary Grace Nguyen.]