Mahler composed his extravagantly monumental Eighth Symphony, Symphony of a Thousand, in a white heat of inspiration and it proved to be the greatest success of his career. For many it will be the highlight of Manchester's Mahler cycle, with Sir Mark Elder conducting the enormous forces of 121 instrumentalists, drawn uniquely from both the Hallé and the BBC Philharmonic, and around 300 singers (members of three Hallé choirs joined by the CBSO Chorus from Birmingham). Tickets sold out faster than those for the Hallé's gig with the rock band Elbow last summer and so great was the disappointment of those who applied too late that nearly 1500 tickets were sold for the final rehearsal. This musical collaboration, packing the Bridgewater Hall for only the third outing of the work in the city, was a Manchester event like no other, hotly anticipated, and, in the event, riveting.
The symphony is in two parts, the first based on the Pentecostal hymn "Veni, Creator Spiritus", and the second the conclusion of Goethe's Faust, Part II. The challenge Mahler set in combining Latin and German, sacred and secular and an immense volume of sound with rapt intimacy is enormous. It was met by Elder's meticulously prepared reading, the instrumentalists' detailed account and the thrillingly executed contribution from ranks of highly disciplined choristers and eight assured vocal soloists.
From the electrifying opening part, with its rich textures, to the intimate, glowing mysticism and blazing climax of the second section, Elder treated the work as the opera Mahler never wrote. Balance is everything here, and the impressive line-up of vocalists blended into the web of lush orchestral sound while conveying as much characterisation as their parts allowed.
The symphony was preceded with a new work, a dazzling improvisation on the original 9th-century chant "Veni, Creator Spiritus" by the organist of Notre Dame, Olivier Latry. Images from the text for Whit were engagingly illustrated with swirling musical sounds conjuring rushing winds, blood, fire and an eclipsing sun, topped with celestial grace, as Latry combined virtuoso playing with fantastically inventive organ colouring.
Broadcast on Radio 3 on 24 May, 7pm