A season finale of Mahler 2 with such esteemed forces had been an enticing prospect since the 2018-19 season was announced a year ago. With the Bridgewater Hall sold out and people queuing desperately for returns, the stage was set for a memorable night; in the event, the performance was almost superb, with a few lapses just taking the gloss off what would otherwise have been a flawless reading of this epic symphony.

Sir Mark Elder
© Benjamin Ealovega

The evening began in tersely solemn mood, with the gravelly opening cello and bass line given uncommonly high-definition clarity and the ensuing march relatively quick paced. On the whole, though, Sir Mark Elder’s approach to the symphony was a slow, measured one, with the music’s natural ebb and flow seeming to breathe in perfect proportions. The first movement panned out with magisterial drama, each phrase carrying immense weight and all seeming to build towards a thrilling climax just before the recapitulation, where col legno strings rattled furiously and the brass blazed.

A few minutes’ pause followed while orchestra (and audience) caught their breath and the soloists, mezzo Alice Coote and soprano Anne Schwanewilms, made their entrance. The second movement was similarly refreshing, its Ländler stride lilting and the string sound rich and warm. An unsettled air of unease remained in the faintly haunting woodwind lines, a feature which continued into the scherzo. Here, Mahler’s sense of the grotesque and ironic juxtaposition of the grotesque next to the sentimental were fully realised. There was grace in the waltzing metre, but the pathos of the woodwind howls was impossible to ignore. In the brassy major key passages, Elder kept the tempo fairly steady rather than charging ahead. This approach applied to the whole symphony, favouring a measured, slow-burning narrative rather than lurching from one scene to the next. There was never a threat of excessive histrionics or sentimentality, so while other performances may find more minute-to-minute drama, this approach made for such a brilliantly convincing sense of overall architecture that the whole symphony seemed over in a flash.

Alice Coote sang the Urlicht with utmost softness and beauty of tone. The orchestra supported her sensitively, with remarkable pianissimo control and spaciousness from the strings and a memorably attractive oboe solo. The finale then blazed into life with thrilling energy before restlessly murmuring the first hints of the Resurrection hymn. The offstage brass, stationed behind the choir but with the door to the auditorium open, projected into the hall with uncommonly loud volume, and as such didn’t feel quite as distant as they might. There was an occasional blip in the on/off-stage ensemble, but the antiphonal trumpet effects later were highly effective. The onstage brass played with reverential softness and warmth in their chorale, before a sudden blaze of light heralded by three side drums and doubled crash cymbals.

The choir, seated and silent for around an hour, took a moment to settle, but their warmly murmured first entrance was beautifully sung, as was Anne Schwanewilms’ delicately controlled contribution. The men of the choir hollered out their cry of “Bereite dich!”, from which point the symphony’s last minutes steadily accelerated in energy into what might have been a perfect conclusion. With choir, organ and brass finally opening the throttle, the last pages were thrilling to behold. It was a pity that the atmosphere was disrupted by a near-catastrophic slip on the perfect cadence before the last, triumphant peroration of the Resurrection hymn: there was a horrible moment of awkward silence, before everyone jolted back to the moment and regrouped on the E-flat major chord of Aufersteh’n. It made the audience wince and will probably have musicians waking in a cold sweat for months. One must accept that these things will happen in live performance, but coupled with a handful of wobbles in ensemble elsewhere in the symphony one just had the sense that not everyone was quite at 100%. On another evening with the same forces and musical approach, this would have been a sublime performance worthy of committing to disc, but tonight the audience had to settle for cheering a merely very good performance to the rafters.

This concert had special significance for the Hallé’s leader of 22 years, Lyn Fletcher, who now retires from her role. After a prolonged standing ovation for the symphony, Elder paid a touching tribute to her career, and in what must surely be a first, Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music was dedicated to her as an encore. Her solos were immaculate  and it was a fitting tribute to a distinguished tenure.