Just a couple of weeks after the BBC Philharmonic’s recent Mahler 5, The Hallé welcomed conductor Alexander Joel to its rostrum for the first time for more Mahler, this time the youthful first symphony. The result was a surprisingly rewarding and highly individual account of the work.

Kristóf Baráti
© Marco Borggreve

Joel is best known as a conductor of opera and his large-print, demonstrative style quickly showed even in the restrained soundscape of Blumine, the ill-fated original second movement of the first symphony. Placing it at the top of the programme rather than a squeezed-in aperitif to the symphony proper was a shrewd move, drawing closer attention to it than it often enjoys. The “fulsomely sentimental” trumpet theme was elegantly realised with all the softness of the third symphony’s posthorn and there was some attractively intimate engagement between oboe and basses. With the strings reduced by a desk all round, their soft pianissimo tremolando was little more than a whisper on a breeze.

Korngold’s “Hollywood concerto”, as The New York Times disapprovingly described it at its premiere, borrows heavily from the composer’s own film scores and bears the marks of his mentorship under Mahler. Hungarian violinist Kristóf Baráti was the soloist here and with Joel he succeeded in not only finding a glossy Hollywood sheen in his own playing, but from the orchestral strings too. The opening movement was held back from fully embracing any sense of romantic fervour until the recapitulation of its soaring theme, but used sparingly, the most dramatic music of the concerto was all the more effective at the climax of the finale. The spacious slow movement was all softness and grace, though again with an intense brightness in the string sound quite different from this section’s usual aesthetic. This may have been at least in part due to Joel being permitted to adjust the orchestra’s usual string layout – first and second violins opposed, and violas sitting opposite the first violins – but for a guest conductor to have such a striking impact on the section says something about his skills.

Mahler’s First Symphony was similarly full of surprises in one of the most individual accounts of the work I’ve heard, without ever threatening to seem mannered and over-sculpted. Joel’s tempi tended toward the slower side, especially in the outer movements, and he was again sparing with full throttle brass and percussion, saving these for the most important of climaxes. The long, slow ascents through darkness to light in the outer movements attested to this and the approach paid off in giving the whole symphony a pleasing sense of shape. The inner movements had plenty to commend them too: the Ländler was muscular and yet unforced and the slow movement suitably bleak.

The slow tempi cast plenty of life on individual details, of which there were a wealth to appreciate, often hiding in a less-heard inner string line. Solos from principal winds and horn were nailed with conviction and sensitivity to Joel’s greater musical strategy, and Tim Gibbs (on loan from the Philharmonia) played the famous slow movement solo with deeply affecting tragedy. This was an intriguing account of a well-trodden symphony: less the youthful blaze it sometimes can be and more a slow and perfectly proportioned journey.