The symphonies of both Mahler and Shostakovich have received close attention in large scale joint projects between the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic in recent years. Intriguingly, the concertos of Shostakovich form one of the main strands of the current Hallé season. This is a brave move; these are not guaranteed crowd-pullers, but surely deserve wider performance. Fortunately, tonight’s soloist and the blockbuster second half Mahler Fifth drew in a good audience. Such was the quality of Alisa Weilerstein’s playing that even Manchester’s usually conservative listeners gave a storming ovation.

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

The orchestral playing was pleasingly supportive and clean in texture, as it was for the Mahler later on. There was no temptation to smooth out the harsher corners from conductor nor players, and the resultant expressive range gave strong credence to the idea that the concerto’s early inception was as a symphony. The percussion section are given an uncommonly prominent role in dialogue with soloist, and these moments were handled with great sensitivity. The stark interjections of xylophone and bass drum were given with particular gusto.

American cellist Alisa Weilerstein displayed the same fierce intent in her playing as that with which she strode on stage. Even the most aggressive percussive outbursts were matched by her phenomenal power. Her tone was unfailingly clean and direct, but with a strikingly rich palette of colours to hand. Most memorable was the ghostly-pale pianissimo she achieved during one run of high harmonics, her control here reflecting her consummate technical skill.

It has been said that one can predict a lot about a performance of Mahler 5 from the opening trumpet solo. Gareth Small’s solo this evening was unusually strident in tone and purposeful in direction, setting the tone for a particularly resolute funeral march first movement. The tempo was on the brisker side, but the sound never forced to the point of abject tragedy. It was a steely, sleeves-rolled-up reading, expertly realised to great effect. The second movement is marked to be played mit größter Vehemenz. The intensity here wasn’t quite at that extreme, especially in the latter parts, but perhaps the relatively restrained opening movement excused this. A heightened sense of drama was certainly not missed in the event, anyway.

The third movement stands alone as Part Two of the symphony, as designated by the composer. As such it plays an important narrative role, mastered with great coherence by Sir Mark Elder. It makes monumental demands of the Principal Horn player, to such extents that Laurence Rogers stood for the duration of the movement. He gave a superb performance, filling the hall with sound and reaching stirringly deep levels of expressivity, all conveyed with great richness of tone.

The last two movements are linked by bright, optimistic horn calls, which came as a pleasingly fresh morning after the famous Adagietto. The Hallé strings, unsurprisingly, played this with all the full colour and clean legato one would expect from them, but also a sense of lightness, when required, which kept the movement in line with the general logic of the whole performance. There was no risk of over-indulgence, but there was a great deal to appreciate in the section’s playing with the centrally placed harp.

The clarity of texture in the finale was especially pleasing, revealing every detail of Mahler’s writing. Meanwhile the greater structure remained perfectly cogent, laid out on a vast scale, whilst delivering the requisite triumphant resolution to the whole work. The last brass chorale glowed warmly, closing a very well conceived and skilfully executed performance. The extended ovation and repeated bows for principal horn were richly deserved.

****1