The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra divides its London concerts between the Royal Festival, Cadogan and Royal Albert halls, and the highlights of its concerts this season at the RAH are performances of Mahler’s three choral symphonies, conducted by its music director, Vasily Petrenko. The Second and Third will follow in the new year, but Petrenko began his mini-series with the grandest of the trio, the Eighth Symphony. It’s one of the few works in the repertory that’s ideally suited to the dimensions of the RAH, and, from the massive organ chord that launches the opening Veni Creator Spiritus hymn, the RPO’s imposing performance, with around 400 voices in the chorus, seven soloists and an orchestra of more than 100 players, certainly sounded as if it belonged there.
Petrenko, however, didn’t overdo the grandeur; there was no sense of wallowing in the sheer weight of sound for its own sake. Tempi were always brisk, textures agile and crisp (almost spikily expressionist in some episodes of the first part), every detail carefully defined. In the second part, based on the final scene of Goethe’s Faust, Petrenko seemed at pains to draw out the connections between Mahler’s score and some of its models – Wagner’s Parsifal in the orchestral prelude, his own Wunderhorn works in the music for the angels and the blessed boys.
But making a convincing dramatic connection between that extended setting and the hymn that precedes it proved as elusive as it always is. The choral singing (the combined forces of the Philharmonia and Bournemouth Symphony choruses, City of London and Tiffin Boys’ choirs and the Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School) was massive and glorious, the soloists utterly secure. Sarah Wegener was Magna Peccatrix, Jacquelyn Wagner a soaring Gretchen, and Regula Mühlemann made the most of her brief contribution as Mater Gloriosa. Jennifer Johnston was Mulier Samaritana and Claudia Huckle the warm-toned Mary of Egypt. Vincent Wolfsteiner coped heroically with the demanding tenor writing for Doctor Marianus; Benedict Nelson and James Platt were utterly secure as Pater Ecstaticus and Pater Profundus respectively. But despite the thrilling effects, it was all curiously uninvolving, though that was more due to Mahler, one suspects, than to anything in Petrenko’s performance.