RPO/Gatti, Royal Albert Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Reaching its 60th birthday with a gala celebration, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra seems to be beating the odds once again. The struggle to survive is one of the several ills of London's orchestral scene caused originally by Sir Thomas Beecham, who created and abandoned orchestras on a whim. Beecham's cast-offs - the RPO being one of three - have competed ever since for scraps of subsidy and dwindling engagements.

Now the RPO, long sidelined by the Arts Council, has found itself a niche in west London with series at the Albert Hall and Cadogan Hall under Ian Maclay's second spell as manager. Its music director of 10 years, Daniele Gatti, has ensured a consistency of artistic quality and purpose, at least when he is conducting. Here he had the confidence to make a party of Mahler's Eighth Symphony, upstaging the orchestra with the massed choirs that give the piece its "Symphony of a Thousand" nickname.

Voices from the London Symphony Chorus, London Philharmonic Choir, Brighton Festival Chorus, London Chorus and New London Children's Choir sang with a single-minded power, tonal range and speed of reaction that even this city's famous tradition of choral blockbusters can only rarely have matched. Gatti was able to sweep the music along with an impetuousness and clarity that made this 90-minute epic seem almost compact.

Big moments were well signalled in advance and arrived with a punchy emphasis. Eventually, in the setting of the final scene from Faust, the orchestra emerged from the tumult to achieve distinction on its own account. Gatti continued to emphasise taut continuity and tonal intensity rather than the soul-searching angst of other, more ego-bound conductors.

Having moved the work forward so effectively, Gatti could make its later stages expand radiantly into the big finish. Only in the vocal solos did the performance fall short. Raised up at the back of the orchestra, most of the soloists strained to project. Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Phillip Joll and less consistently Janice Watson and Kim Begley had the best of it, but eventually the hot atmosphere and high position defeated both the main sopranos' stamina.

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