“Now, as was always intended, we sing and play; nothing can change that”. These words, spoken slowly and solemnly by Sir Thomas Allen once every seat in the Bridgewater Hall was taken, prefaced a remarkable evening in Manchester which saw two great orchestras and three choirs sharing a specially extended stage for Schoenberg’s colossal Gurre-Lieder. At the end of a dark fortnight in modern British history, the mere thought of this Hallé/BBC Philharmonic collaboration was moving enough; by the end of the night the joys of such a convivial coming together were fully, openly embraced. Moments in Part 3 must have rivalled the Ariana Grande fundraiser down the road at Old Trafford for volume, and indeed the final chorus of “Seht die Sonne” was the most shatteringly glorious noise I have heard in a few seasons.

The Hallé and Sir Mark Elder © The Hallé
The Hallé and Sir Mark Elder
© The Hallé

Big events have been at the heart of these recent seasons in Manchester, where the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic have come together sporadically to put on the likes of Mahler 8 and the Alpensinfonie. Under Sir Mark Elder, whose 70th birthday was a couple of days prior to the performance, there was Mahler aplenty to be heard in Schoenberg’s writing, and even Elgar in the ferocious chorus of vassals, but this Gurre-Lieder above all felt so operatic in its drama and brooding darkness that it seemed an entirely logical step from late Wagner.

The orchestral playing was of a predictably high standard in the winds, with the 27-strong brass section and innumerable woodwinds on top form throughout. It was perhaps more interesting that, given the very different string section sounds of the two orchestras, tonight’s strings combined some of the best features of both, hinting on occasion at the scintillating lightness of the BBC Phil and the darker, warmer sound of the Hallé. They were remarkably responsive to both the music and text of the singers, bringing rich sensuousness to the Tove/Waldemar scene and cold, rasping fury to the latter’s cursing of God in Part 2 with the contrabass trombone. The percussion section, curiously led by an (excellent) pair of timpanists of neither Hallé nor Philharmonic extraction, played with huge gusto and indeed literally full-body manhandling of the heavy metal chains demanded by Schoenberg.

Of the singers, Brandon Jovanovich’s Waldemar was the biggest triumph, displaying all the heldentenor reserves to throw his voice to the back of the hall above orchestra and choir right to the end of the work. Emily Magee’s Tove was rather warmer and softer, with not a hint of a sharp edge in sight, though at times a little lost in the orchestral maelstrom. Alice Coote, as the prophetic Wood Dove, described the death of Tove with such breathtaking anguish as to make the end of Part 1 unbearably dark. James Creswell, replacing an unwell Johan Reuter as the Peasant, commentated on the ghoulish, skeletal cortege of Part 3 with a convincingly fascinated horror. Meanwhile Graham Clark, an erstwhile Mime and Loge of the opera house, brought some light-hearted high spirits as Klaus the (spectral) Fool, garnering a few chuckles for threatening that he would hang himself were he not too late.

It was when the male chorus leapt to action, though, that the floor started to shake. The combined gentleman of the Hallé Choir, Edinburgh Festival Chorus and London Philharmonic Choir bellowed out their cries of “Holla! Holla!” with thrilling power (what would one give to hear these forces do the Dutchman?) ahead of a raucous vassal charge.

Sir Thomas Allen returned to the stage to comment on the summer wind’s wild hunt, doing so with gusto and less sprech than sang in his Sprechgesang, before the ladies of the choir finally rose to sing the most exulted of choruses to finish the piece. The shattering, sustained last note, its sound already pinning the audience back in their seats, saw Elder desperately imploring yet more sound from his forces.

I suspect few cities in Europe, never mind the UK, hold the chief of one of its orchestras in the same esteem Manchester holds the Hallé’s Music Director, but after a wonderfully silent pause, the loudest cheer of the night was for him. The radio broadcast of this concert later in the week is not to be missed.