CBSO / Rattle, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture

It's all too easy to mock Mahler for the outrageous ambitiousness of his Eighth Symphony.

It's all too easy to mock Mahler for the outrageous ambitiousness of his Eighth Symphony. With a vast, colour-enhanced orchestra, forests of choirs, and enough soloists to fill a lavish grand opera, he sets first a medieval invocation to the Holy Spirit, then the final scene of Part II of Goethe's Faust - not just one of the high points of German literature, but set entirely in Heaven, and including a special guest appearance by the Virgin Mother of God.

Critics have called it pretentious; dismissed Part II as a paradise of kitsch; or, more subtly, argued that Mahler simply didn't do upbeat very well - that he was more truly himself when evoking doubt or despair. But all it needs is a performance such as Saturday's to blow those arguments out of the water. The thought of hearing Mahler's fabulously inventive orchestral writing in Birmingham's Symphony Hall was enticing enough, and, on that level, the experience didn't disappoint. But this was so much more than a sonic warm bath. After the spectacular sunburst opening, it became clear how Rattle's understanding of this symphony has ripened and deepened since his Birmingham days.

Clearly, he now has a stronger view of the Eighth as a continuous, driven narrative. In some performances, the effect is of a chain of more or less closely linked big moments. In Rattle's hands, however, the whole symphony was pushed forward on a tide of powerful emotional logic. But that didn't mean that the beauty of the moment was sacrificed to some ideal of "symphonic" progress. This Eighth was full of telling expressive details - the kind of tiny rise and fall of a phrase that tugs at the heartstrings.

At the end, the sense of uplift was almost too intense. But there was pathos as well as affirmation. Mahler- the-ecstatic-visionary may hold centre- stage in the oceanic final climax, but perhaps Mahler-the-doubter is still brooding somewhere behind the scenes, working himself up for a devastating comeback in the Ninth and Tenth symphonies, and Das Lied von der Erde.

Just as breathtaking as Mahler's audacity and Rattle's mastery was the sheer determination and passion of everybody involved. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra played like gods, the City of Birmingham and London Symphony Choruses sang with precision and apparently limitless reserves of physical and emotional stamina.

And it was wonderful to see as well as hear the enthusiasm of the City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus and Toronto Children's Chorus, at one point cupping their hands to their mouths to make themselves heard through the tidal roar of one of Mahler's bigger climaxes. To get well over a hundred teenagers and younger children to sing German and medieval Latin with such precision and gusto is no small achievement.

As for the solo team, all were excellent, but Juliane Banse was ravishing in her brief offstage performance as the Virgin; Soile Isokoski made an especially touching penitent Gretchen; Christine Brewer was searingly beautiful, particularly in the final hymn; while tenor Jon Villars only had to open his mouth to send fire shooting through the veins. A triumph? The word is too feeble and shop-worn for an experience such as this.

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