After its exceptional contribution to Manchester's celebration of Mahler last season, the Hallé – opening the season with more music by the same composer – appeared to have some unfinished business. But when the pieces in question were so fascinating and their interpretation so compelling, by players who now clearly have the rhythms and subtleties of Mahler's music in their blood, it felt quite logical.
The Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager brought a delightfully fresh characterisation to six of the Wunderhorn songs – folk poems about soldiers, shepherds, lovers and the dark side of life. After a feisty exchange between a haughty Hussar and his spirited girl in "Trost im Ungluck", Kirchshlager produced a puckish humour in the wager between the cuckoo and the nightingale, with nasal pronouncements from a donkey, in "Lob des Hohen Verstandes". In "Das irdische Leben", the unsettling tale of a child who dies because her mother fails to bake bread, she demonstrated a brooding intensity carried over into the last in her selection, "Urlicht", performed with a silvery radiance.
Before this, Mark Elder conducted the original version of Totenfeier, which Mahler later adapted as the opening movement of his Second Symphony. As Michael Kennedy remarked so perceptively in his programme note, we are hearing the composer in his workshop. But though the fatalistic single movement "Funeral Rite" may be a work-in-progress, the Hallé brought finesse, coherency and momentum to its reading.
In Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, Elder drew a succession of climaxes while pointing up the work's symphonic line through the ticking drama of its balletic scherzo, the lyrical intensity of its tender slow movement and its ebullient finale. No surprise, then, that the day after this concert, the Hallé – enjoying a renaissance under the musical directorship of Elder – won not just one but two accolades at the Gramophone Awards, for Elgar's Violin Concerto and for its superb live recording of Wagner's Götterdämmerung. On the same day, Manchester International Festival announced that a highlight of its 2011 programme would be a concert performance, by Elder and the Hallé, of Die Walkure. An unmissable event.