Sir Mark Elder conducted the Hallé in fine performances of Haydn’s final symphony, no. 104, and Mahler’s most humble, no. 4.

Sir Mark Elder © Simon Dodds
Sir Mark Elder
© Simon Dodds

There is a neat symmetry in pairing Haydn with Mahler symphonies, respectively viewed as the grandfather and zenith of the genre. There was further interest in coupling Haydn’s very last symphony with Mahler’s most classical, conceived almost a hundred years later. The symphony, no. 104, known as the London Symphony, is the culmination of the twelve Haydn wrote during his two visits to the city and which are collectively known as the London Symphonies. It is scored for the same forces as those required for most Beethoven symphonies, and it was this relationship which was highlighted in tonight’s performance.

Despite the relatively substantial size of the string section (five desks of first violins), they maintained a suitably clear sound with minimal vibrato, and at no point did the intricacies of Haydn’s writing threaten to become obscured. The fuller passages were strongly reminiscent of the orchestra’s Beethoven symphony cycle last season, largely in the careful blending of trumpets and hand-tuned timpani with the rest of the orchestra. The inner movements showed tasteful restraint and elegance, stately rather than retiring, and with Elder’s subtle rubato giving a sense of space in the Minuetto.

A sense of sparkly drive and busyness underpinned the outer movements. The grandiosity of the horns in the fourth worked well with this fairly big-boned reading. This wasn’t the Haydn of a chamber orchestra, but the Hallé showed that a fuller sound is entirely compatible with the classical master. The orchestra have two more Haydn symphonies approaching, one of which is to be paired with more Mahler, and they will be well worth hearing.

The Mahler was given an honest reading, full of the childlike innocence for which it is famed. Elder provided a short introduction with leader Lyn Fletcher (later excellent in the second movement’s solos) before opening a first movement which fully embraced the rhythmic jauntiness of Mahler’s woodwind writing. The sweep of the violins was a pleasing contrast to this, but the overall impression was of great wit and fun.

A very spacious and deliciously warm third movement was the key to the success of the performance, though. The legato of the strings, violas and celli in particular, made for a gorgeously elegiac atmosphere. There seemed to be all the time in the world for them to make their point.

Soprano Ailish Tynan entered dramatically at the climactic appearance of paradise in the third movement, allowing an effective attacca transition to the finale. As also in the Second and Third Symphonies, this is a setting of a text from the folk poetry volume Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs, in this case “Das himmlische Leben”. The movement was fairly steady in pacing, with significant periodic broadening of tempo. Tynan found an unfailingly lovely tone which expressed a sense of wondrous joy, occasionally dropping into a hushed whisper. This made for a beautifully serene close to the symphony, the sound fading to nothing with fine control. One eager member of the audience, alas, seemed not to realise that the double basses were not quite at the end of their bows before launching into applause. The reaction from all around, though, was warm smiles: it really had been delightful Mahler.