Mahler in Manchester: Halle / Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Monday 15 March 2010
With the Fifth Symphony came the midpoint in the Mahler in Manchester series, an invaluable enterprise between the BBC Philharmonic, the Hallé and Manchester Camerata.
Which other city could summon such a fruitful relationship between its major players? A range of add-on events embellishes this anniversary celebration (150 years since the composer's birth) but what makes the series at the Bridgewater Hall stand out is a clutch of new commissions eliciting very different responses to Mahler's music.
To preface Mahler's Fifth Symphony, the Hallé invited the American jazz pianist Uri Caine to try his hand at writing for young voices. Drawing on the many diverse associations with childhood in Mahler's music, Caine originally planned to score his choral Scenes from Childhood for the vast orchestral forces lined up for the subsequent symphony. Fortunately, he had second thoughts although at this first performance it must have been immediately clear even to Caine, adding an engaging solo elaboration at the piano, that he had seriously misjudged the balance between voices and instruments.
Even with the help of Manchester University's Ad Solem chamber choir, the Hallé Youth Choir struggled to be heard or to put across even a fraction of the words. The young singers sounded confident in their tricky lines and also in intonation but no matter how exemplary their sense of ardent improvisation they could not compete with the over-rich orchestral texture. There was no lack of exuberance in the sepia-coloured snapshot of childhood in Dylan Thomas's "Fern Hill", some haunting detail in the short-lived Pavel Friedmann's musings on why butterflies don't live in the ghetto, and an assured ecstasy in Blake's "Infant Joy" but only after some drastically reduced and stringently reworked scoring will Scenes from Childhood make its maximum and, surely, eloquent, effect.
Mark Elder's perceptive reading of Mahler's Fifth goes for the big picture in a striking way. In this epic, five-movement journey the conductor drove the players to highlight each of the composer's minute dramatic shifts, but always within the symphony's long-term framework. Darkly craggy in hue, the first two movements unfolded in an appropriately uneasy manner, the Hallé displaying an infinite range of intrumental colour against an impressive dynamic range.
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