At the end of a successful week in which the orchestra’s recording of The Apostles won BBC Music Magazine’s Disc of the Year award, Sir Mark Elder conducted the Hallé in a joyfully youthful account of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, followed by graphic Janáček and Hadyn.

The concert programme was interesting on several fronts. It successfully brought together aspects of recent Hallé concerts, being framed between Mahler’s Fourth and First Symphonies and a few recent Haydn symphonies. Janáček has been a constant force in the season. The running order seemed somewhat upside-down at first look, with the biggest work played first, but this drew greater attention to the fine performances of Janáček and Haydn. The programme seemed to explain itself, though, as the soft sense of tragedy of Janáček’s Fiddler’s Child and the martial thob of Haydn’s symphonic century served to emphasise aspects of the already-heard Mahler.

Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs take their text from the early 19th-century collection of the same name, and it is the twelve songs of 1901 which form the cycle now commonly heard in the concert hall. Along with other songs from the original work, parts of the cycle appear in various guises in most of the composer’s early symphonies. It is variously performed with one or two soloists, and the deployment of two tonight justified itself very quickly as Angelika Kirchschlager and Jacques Imbrailo succeeded in bringing out the characters of the songs. This was much aided by Elder, whose operatic take on the cycle worked very well. There was abundant drama in the soloists’ singing and stage presence, with the fourth song’s haughtiness earning chuckles from the audience. Mezzo-soprano Kirchschlager showed a very attractive tone, particularly in the pastoral scenes of the second and fifth and the charm of the tenth, but also created a disturbing atmosphere in “The Earthly Life”. Her depiction of the hungry child being denied food was quite unsettling. Imbrailo, on the other hand, was very strong in the more martial songs, although his soft tone at the end of number five was quite moving in describing his solitude.

Unusually for Mahler, the orchestra played with a relatively small string section, perhaps only forty-something strong, which maintained a feeling of childish smallness. The quiet moments showed very fine control from trumpets and percussion, and the unusual sound of horn and flute fanfares in number eleven were well emphasised. “St Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish” (number nine) had a pleasing fluidity of sound. In the final song, Imbrailo sang with despair and bitterness of his impending execution, while Elder’s slow tempo brought ample sorrow to the horns and solo oboe to make for a sombre close.

Janáček’s 1913 tone poem The Fiddler’s Child is a programmatic setting of a 19th-century Czech ballad. The various orchestral sections assigned specific roles performed very well: leader Lyn Fletcher was a passionate Fiddler, full of intense vibrato, and the four solo violas functioned nicely as a chorus of sorts, seeming to reflect accurately on the tone of what others had played. The strings’ warmth during the death of the child was well judged, and led to a broad and soft final paragraph.

Haydn’s Symphony no. 100, “Military” closed the evening on a more positive note. The martial second movement features percussion writing quite extravagant for the late 1800s, and no other Haydn symphony repeats the scoring. The percussion section were suitably rowdy without obscuring detail. The rest of the orchestra was oddly configured, with clarinets and bassoons swapping seats and fifth and fourth horn playing first and second parts respectively, but playing was very good nonetheless. There was some occasional unsteadiness in the first movement’s string quavers, but this settled quickly. The finale was better controlled in its boisterousness, and a tremendous sense of fun accompanied the final percussion entry to take the concert to a jovial conclusion.