The Hallé’s 2015-16 season has the theme of fate running through it and this was nowhere more prominent than in this Thursday’s concert.  Two serious works expressly dealing with death plus the final symphony of a composer who knew that it would be his last could have made for a sombre evening but these three masterpieces came together to produce an experience which was satisfying and enriching.

Sir Mark Elder © Simon Dodd
Sir Mark Elder
© Simon Dodd
Sir Mark Elder began with Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead, a tone poem that the composer based on a black-and-white reproduction of a painting by Arnold Böcklin which was hugely popular at the beginning of the 20th century. Elder managed the forces of the Hallé so that they grew from the quiet, hypnotic 5/8 rhythms of the opening suggesting the lapping of the waves or the movement of the oars into a magnificent climax of rich, dark colours and finally returning to the lapping of the water.

German poet Friedrich Rückert poured out his grief on the death of his two children in over 400 lyric poems. Gustav Mahler chose five of them to set in his Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), one of his less frequently performed works. Mahler had lost seven of his own brothers and sisters in childhood and had recently almost died himself. His wife Alma thought he was tempting fate by completing the cycle when their children were in good health.  It was a horrific coincidence that his daughter died just three years later; Mahler told a friend that when he really lost his daughter he could not have written these songs.

The Kindertotenlieder do not contain the country dances or military motifs that enliven many of Mahler’s compositions and yet they are not unremittingly grim. Mahler chose poems with imagery relating to light and shafts of instrumental colour often illuminate the songs. He set the poems very clearly and Roderick Williams sang them so that every word could be followed. This was a very expressive performance. Elder brought out the subtleties of the instrumental writing; Williams shaded his fine baritone voice to capture every nuance of the songs. At the end of the final song, when the storm had abated, his voice reduced to match the peaceful warmth of the orchestra. Mahler believed in an afterlife and we were left in no doubt that the children were in Heaven. 

Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 15 in A major is one of the most perplexing of all symphonies. Unlike the Rachmaninov and Mahler that we had just heard or Shostakovich’s previous few symphonies, it has no artistic, literary or historical sources inspiration. And yet it is such an intriguing piece that listeners have been trying to work out what it "means" since its first performance in 1972. In his introductory talk Sir Mark suggested that each of us should try to find our own relationship with this enigmatic music.

In some ways it is a traditional symphony: it has four movements in proportions that Beethoven would have recognised. And yet is profoundly and disturbingly odd, not least in those quotations from Rossini and Wagner and the prominent role of the percussion.  In a fine performance, however, listening to the Fifteenth can be an uplifting experience, and this evening’s performance was a very fine one indeed.

The Bridgewater Hall stage was full as the orchestra required is a large one, but for much of the symphony small groups of instruments play together. Elder ensured that the disparate elements came together in a coherent whole. He also brought out the peculiar humour of the first movement. The William Tell quotations felt strange but fitted in perfectly. The composer suggested that the first movement was like something taking place in a toyshop and somehow this made sense; the unexpected twists and turns seemed to have a logic of their own.

The second movement was the tragic heart of the work with its slow, sad instrumental solos beautifully taken by members of the orchestra. The changing combinations of instruments continually challenged and intrigued the ear. Sometimes it felt as if the music was suspended in time and was going to stop but under Elder’s control it remained utterly gripping. 

If the third movement brought some reduction in intensity it was disorientating and disturbing. The finale returned us to the seriousness of the second movement, leading to the most remarkable conclusion, dominated by rhythmical sounds from the eight percussionists. This music is said to reflect the noises of the medical machinery that Shostakovich heard when a patient in a sanatorium in Siberia. This was an astonishing conclusion to a remarkable symphony.  For all the work’s strangeness Elder and the Hallé made it seem completely natural and inevitable.