For the Hallé's season's finale, Sir Mark Elder conducted a deeply reflective programme of Brahms and Mahler, closing with an outstanding performance of the latter's Ninth Symphony. Backed by some of the finest technical playing from the orchestra, horns on particularly magnificent form, this great work was given with close attention to small details whilst retaining a clear vision of the bigger picture. In the silence which followed the final murmurings of the last bar, the enormous journey of the symphony became apparent, before a prolonged and joyous reception.

Sir Mark Elder © Simon Dodd
Sir Mark Elder
© Simon Dodd

The evening began with one of the best pre-concert events I have attended, the Hallé Choir giving three of Hubert Parry's Songs of Farewell under the direction of their former master, James Burton. The songs were interspersed with eloquent poetry readings by actors from the Manchester School of Theatre. The songs and readings were given in a continued stream, applause held to the end, making for a very pleasing whole which could quite easily and very effectively have served as the first half of the concert.

That role, in the event, fell to Brahms' seldom heard choral work Nänie, a setting of a Schiller text on Classical Greek mourning. As in the Parry Songs the choral singing was first rate, at once softly intoned but with clear diction, recalling their Brahms Requiem under Markus Stenz earlier this season. Close attention to Schiller's beautiful text was obvious to hear in the way Elder highlighted certain key phrases, despite a a fairly forward looking tempo. In the last lines, particular care and tenderness was applied to “Da weinen die Götter, es weinen die Göttinnen alle/ Daß das Schöne vergeht”, and in the next line “Im Mund der Geliebten” was suitably highlighted as the climax of the piece (Brahms repeats this line, ending on a rather more positive note than Schiller did).

Twelve months ago Elder conducted Mahler's First Symphony in last year's season finale, so to follow it up with the composer's last completed effort in the genre was a nice progression. Technically this was a near flawless performance, and musically it was a compelling journey through some of the composer's darkest days. Mahler in 1909 was not a happy man. Such was his anxiety about his health at the time that the first two bars of the Ninth are believed to be a musical expression of his heart murmur (mitral stenosis secondary to rheumatic fever, as you ask). The remainder of the first movement is less literal, but it was no less devastating. The opening theme was taken slowly in a gorgeously autumnal tone colour, so that when the three climaxes appear, they felt properly earned. Elder pushed off from these with broad ritenutos, as if it had cost the composer a huge effort to do so. The sustained pianissimo passage gave glimpses of the quiet angst of the finale in the soft, wispy sounds, beautifully wistful at the very end of the movement.

The second movement was given in reasonably good spirits. It was vigorous, but perhaps not as rough or clumsy as Mahler stipulated. The intensity grew in the third movement, after a long pause and retune, as the music became far more brutal, full of ferocious bite and occasional moments of elegant burlesque. The sudden glimpse of the the fourth movement's resolution in D major was given with wonderfully light, otherworldly trumpet solos. The movement was a rich tapestry of detail, but the drama was equally thrilling, especially so so as the music charged to its fierce conclusion.

Expectations were high for the Adagio, but the superlative playing and direction far surpassed them. The richness of the string tone was sustained to the end, with good depth even in the pianissimo last bar. There was a sense of deep affection for the music in the elegant phrasing (detail no doubt helped by the clear quaver beat). Deeply moving corners appeared regularly on the way to a magnificent climax, horns and cymbals held aloft for the impassioned outburst. The last, long diminuendo had the hall holding its collective breath as the music died to nothing.

It was a fitting conclusion to an outstanding performance, and was greeted with a large ovation from the audience. Elder made a point of congratulating principal horn Laurence Rogers, who played superbly, virtuoso solos given with apparent ease and exceptional beauty. His section as a whole was in brilliant form, and, along with the rich depth of the string tone made a vital contribution to this memorable performance.