“Symphony is a symphony is a symphony is a symphony,” as Gertrude Stein might have said, had she not been preoccupied with roses in 1913. Or, in a more topical allusion, “Symphony means Symphony.” But it doesn’t, does it? Symphonies come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and not the least of the variables is the number of movements.

Mark Elder conducts the Hallé Orchestra © BBC|Chris Christodoulou
Mark Elder conducts the Hallé Orchestra
© BBC|Chris Christodoulou

Mahler was one of those who frequently tested the boundaries of what seemed possible. In the summer of 1908, after his annus horribilis of the previous year, he sat down to unite the symphonic and the vocal, drawing on a recently published volume of Chinese poetry for his inspiration. The result was Das Lied von der Erde, to which he superstitiously refused to give the title of Ninth Symphony and which he never heard performed in his lifetime. The six movements are very different in length, colour and orchestration but are linked by an awareness of mortality and the emotional pain that is inherent in our leave-taking from this world.

Testing the boundaries included in Mahler’s case the risk of occasionally getting things wrong. He spent his entire life revising his orchestral scores and retouching the orchestration; even so, balance sometimes continues to go awry, causing problems in performance and not least in Das Lied von der Erde. This led Colin Matthews in 2012 to make an arrangement of the first movement, in which he refined some of the textures and which in this performance by the Hallé under Sir Mark Elder was receiving its London première.

Unfortunately, things got off to a poor start with insecure horns – the opening needs to grab the audience by the jugular in order to set the stage for the tenor’s first ringing entry. It might be argued that Mahler expects too much of the first of his two solo voices, requiring the strength and incisiveness of a Heldentenor married to an exquisite sense of line. Gregory Kunde fell below expectations and struggled initially with intonation problems: his is a warm voice, schooled in the colouring which operatic roles require, but it is already fraying noticeably around the edges. The strain was particularly evident in the third movement “Von der Jugend” but he successfully captured the sense of swagger in “Der Trunkene im Frühling” fifth movement and his dialogue with the bird - represented by the flute – was delivered with welcome conviction.

Alice Coote © BBC|Chris Christodoulou
Alice Coote
© BBC|Chris Christodoulou

Alice Coote is at home in the German repertory, and especially in Mahler. She connects with the bittersweet elements, enunciates her text with clear understanding and has the ability not only to float a tender silvery line supported by a mere strand of orchestral colour, but also to project a voice of considerable amplitude across the large spaces of the Albert Hall. Her expressive range was most impressively displayed in the emotional heart of the work, “Der Abschied”, the sixth and longest movement, from the opening mood of resignation right up to the last pair of heartfelt and almost inaudible “ewigs” in the dying pages.

The power of Coote’s performance was echoed in the sensitive shaping of the entire score by Elder, who brought alive Mahler’s miraculous orchestration including the many instances of musical chinoiserie. Even if the upper strings didn’t quite have the muscle to ride the more tempestuous passages, their soft playing at the start of the second movement (“Der Einsame im Herbst”) was a delight. A bedrock of sound was provided by the excellent double-basses. But it was the woodwind who stole the show with unfailingly eloquent playing, especially from Stéphane Rancourt (oboe) and Katherine Baker (flute).

Leonard Elschenbroich © BBC|Chris Christodoulou
Leonard Elschenbroich
© BBC|Chris Christodoulou

Nothing in the programme-book suggested an obvious link between the substantial second half and the two much shorter works in the first half. Perhaps this was implicit, since an elegiac mood was common to all three, but I can’t help feeling that this was an example of spatchcocking. Elder started with a further nod towards the quatercentennial celebrations of this year: a well-crafted performance of Berlioz’ longest overture, King Lear. Only in the Allegro section are there clear indications that this work is by France’s greatest Romantic composer, with racing strings and flirtatious woodwind; it is prefaced by an extensive slow introduction given added weight in this reading by full-throated lower strings and which at times had amazing pre-echoes of Liszt’s Les Préludes. This was followed by the Berceuse for Dresden, composed by Colin Matthews to commemorate the restoration and reconsecration of the German city’s Frauenkirche in 2005. It has to be said that the tintinnabulation which is a structural element of this piece has been done more convincingly by composers like Pärt, and the cello soloist, Leonard Elschenbroich, had little to do outside the middle and lower registers of his instrument. The electronically-aided spatial effects provided additional interest.

***11