Any performance of Mahler’s epic Third Symphony is a special occasion. Manchester concertgoers had been looking forward to this rescheduled Hallé/Elder Mahler 3 ever since the project originally fell foul to lockdown a year and a half ago, so the anticipation was particularly high. The end result was better than could possibly have been hoped for. If I hear another concert as good as this one in 2022, I will be very lucky indeed.

Sir Mark Elder conducts The Hallé
© Riley Bramley Dymond | The Hallé

The vast sprawl of the piece was here laid out more in the style of a grand music drama than a concise symphonic work. Coupling Sir Mark Elder’s mostly stately tempos with long pauses between movements for dust to settle and choirs to assemble, the whole work came in at around 115 minutes. Not once during that time did the drama sag. The scenes of the first movement flickered past with riveting focus, all the while seeming to be looking ahead to the movement’s giddy coda. Here, Pan awoke slowly from the darkest of winters, with an enormous sense of space between phrases. Upbeats seemed to hang in the air longer than ever before, and later Katy Jones’ trombone solos captured all the earthy tragedy and resolve of the movement’s heart. When the more optimistic marches appeared, they grew steadily in gusto, crispness aided by the side drum being tucked between cellos and second violins. If something seemed to be held in reserve initially, it was realised joyfully in the monumental coda, where huge pull-backs of tempo gave way to a rowdy conclusion.

Alice Coote
© Riley Bramley Dymond | The Hallé

The graphic detail of the second and third movements kept the music feeling fresh and suitably bucolic. The posthorn solos (uncredited in the programme) floated immaculately from high above the stage, and every nuance of the woodwind solos, from elegant to grotesque, was captured.

Alice Coote’s singing in the fourth movement reached another level. Somehow singing without any warm-up, her impassioned pleas of “O Mensch! Gib Acht!” in the Mitternachtslied seemed to be directed to individual audience members in the packed hall. Her rich, full sound intertwined with ravishing horn solos and imploringly bold oboe slides to fill some vast, existential space. Only the “Bimm Bamms” of the Hallé Children’s Choir could bring us back to earth, accompanied by the RLPO’s ‘Forever Bells’, the first time Mahler 3 has been played with ‘proper’ bells in the UK. Both the children’s and adult choirs sang with impeccable diction and freshness, interacting with the orchestra and solo line with carefully managed balance.

The Hallé performs Mahler's Third Symphony
© Riley Bramley Dymond | The Hallé

Given the steady tempos elsewhere in the symphony, the final movement was surprisingly more forward-looking, without any sense of wallowing. Yet with even the Children’s Choir and audience completely motionless, the sense of stillness was striking. The strings produced their richest legato yet, propelled by a rich, woody sound from the violas and cellos, while the climaxes blazed. Elder conducted without a baton, ultimately shaping the symphony’s last pages into an unforgettable peroration. The huge ovation was well deserved. Whatever you do, don’t miss the radio broadcast on Friday.