The once familiar sight of bustling Bridgewater Hall greeted the Hallé orchestra, who opened their spring season with a long-awaited performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony – originally scheduled for May 2020.
Where Mahler’s Second Symphony follows the passage of darkness into light, the Third gets even closer to his world-encompassing aspiration, charting nature’s journey via mankind towards God’s love. Involving six, lopsidedly arranged movements, requiring a vast number of musicians and lasting for well over 90 minute, it’s an ambitious piece to programme at any time, maar, with a vista of performers on one side and a packed auditorium on the other, Mark Elder was a picture of calm, interrupting his economical gestures only to shake more sound out of the strings.
Elder’s dedication to painting the big picture can come at the expense of rhythmic transparency, but the sound he conjures from the Hallé is plush, dramatic and – crucially for this work – unhurried. The orchestra’s nine horns began proceedings resolutely as each section presented their own vivid colours in turn through the sprawling opening movement, Katy Jones’s sonorous trombone solo the pick of the bunch.
Symphonic logic rapidly departs as the piece travels through an impish minuet to a folksy movement originally titled What the Animals of the Forest Tell Me – the latter possessed bags of the earthiness that’s key to releasing Mahler’s magic. The two vocal movements brought sharply contrasting characters: Alice Coote leant heavily into the world-weary mood of Nietzsche’s enigmatic “superman” text, while the Hallé Choirs delivered their short contributions with gusto. The slender fifth movement was a multi-layered delight, courtesy of beaming “bimm! bamm!”s from the Children’s Choir and genuine church bells (borrowed from the Liverpool Philharmonic). But the evening’s high point was Elder’s judicious handling of the finale’s consecutive peaks – measured in its passion, and rapturously applauded.