Britain’s second largest city launched its first Mahler cycle last night with a heart-stopping concert of the eighth symphony, shrunk to 600 performers. That was the most the hall could sensibly accommodate but the result was a performance of rare intimacy in which the conductor Andris Nelsons seemed to reach out and almost touch the banks of singers posted at the back of the stage, both sides and the overlooking balconies. It was 100 years to the week since Gustav Mahler gave the world premiere in Munich.
In some ways, the hall was the star. I can’t remember ever hearing such such a wondrous, warm hush between the opening Veni blasts and the first soprano/tenor duet, or so natural a balance between solo voices, orchestra and massed choruses. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is in effulgent sonic form and the city itself seems to be in love with the ever-twinkling Latvian conductor, who wears the perpetual look of a boy with a new bike.
All the omens were good and none of them let us down. The soloists – Marina Shaguch, Erin Wall, Carolyn Sampson, Katarina Karneus, Mihoko Fujimara; Sergei Shemshikur, Christopher Maltman and Stephen Gadd – were flawless and, for once, they were able to sing the Symphony of a Thousand without being strangulated or drowned.
Of the three Mahler Eights I have heard this year – the others were led by Mark Elder (Manchester) and Jiri Belohlavek (BBC Proms) – this added most in terms of lucidity and comprehension. Russell Johnson, the hall’s late acoustician, can rest easy in his grave.
It came as a shock to discover that Birmingham had never done a complete cycle of the Mahler symphonies before, but local historians assured me that even in the Simon Rattle years Mahler was introduced with caution, little by little, as much as the market could bear. Why Mahler? argues that Mahler has become established as a concert phenomenon chiefly in the 21st century.
That said, the concert programme revealed plans for a Mahler Eighth in Birmingham in the orchestra’s opening season, 1920-21, which would have brought forward its UK debut by four decades. Why conductor Appleby Matthews’ plan failed is not known; we have to assume he ran out of money.
Many in the sold-out house had come from far and wide to hear the Eighth – one young couple from Leeds, others from Scotland – having been unable to get tickets for previous performances. Demand for Mahler is high, and rising. More than 300 attended the Why Mahler? pre-concert talk and the bookshop sold out of copies. I shall return to Birmingham at least once more during the cycle, which runs to June 2011.
If you have a Mahler experience to share, you can log it into the orchestra’s My Mahler site.