All things have a beginning and all things have an end. As summer came to an end in Manchester, the Hallé Orchestra began another season at the Bridgewater Hall, its last with Sir Mark Elder as its music director.

Sir Mark began his illustrious career with the Hallé at the beginning of the millennium. In the intervening 23 years, he has successfully guided it back to its rightful place as one of the world’s best orchestras, according to BBC Classical Music Magazine which has this to say on the matter: “Under the current leadership of Mark Elder, the Hallé has risen to new heights, and is arguably the finest interpreter of English music of any ensemble.”     

So, what better way to begin the long goodbye than with a superb performance of a symphony synonymous with farewells and finales, Gustav Mahler’s ninth and final symphony?

Mahler, born in 1860 in Bohemia in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, has always been something of a bridge between worlds; a member of the German-speaking, Austrian minority in Czech-speaking Bohemia; born to Jewish parents but converted to Catholicism; a composer whose work spanned the romanticism of the 19th century and the modernism of the early 20th. Little wonder then that he became the master of counterpoint, never more deftly illustrated than in his first symphony.    

Gustav Mahler, photographed in 1907 by Moritz Nähr at the end of his period as director of the Vienna Hofoper

In 1907, Mahler’s beloved daughter Maria died from scarlet fever and diphtheria aged just five. Immediately after this he was diagnosed as having a major heart condition, which like as not was probably going to kill him. Just a year later he embarked on his final full symphony, his ninth, which he completed in 1908.     

Mahler died in May 1911, a year before the symphony’s world premiere in Vienna. Incidentally, it was first performed in the UK in Manchester by the Hallé, in 1930, conducted by Hamilton Harty.

Mahler’s ninth has often been interpreted as his conscious farewell to the world, founded on the tragedy of the death of his daughter and the steep decline of his own health and his own impending death. It’s a tempting interpretation. Don’t we all need to find meaning in the things we love, the things we admire? We, his audience, experience those thoughts through Mahler’s last, finished symphony.

That these themes are present in the work is beyond dispute. But what is conscious, and what is unconscious (as Sigmund Freud may have asked his fellow Austrian when Mahler consulted him in the spring of 1910)? After all, you can’t kid the id. But then again, Freud was no lover of music, so what did he know.

Fast forward to 2023 and the performance begins with moody harps and a distinctly Wagnerian horn. Gradually, section by section, the rest of the orchestra enters the slipstream, and the music builds until the 100-plus orchestra is fully engaged under the expert guidance of its leader.

Both Elder’s baton and the music rise and fall in waves, sometimes with melancholy, sometimes with joy, but always in exquisite empathy with the man, Mahler, and his vision of life and death. On a night of uniform excellence on stage, special mention should be made for the orchestra’s leader, Roberto Ruisi, along with principal oboe Stéphane Rancourt, principal flute Amy Yule, and horns Laurence Rogers and Matthew Head.

Sir Mark Elder with the Hallé. Credit: Russell Hart.

In the middle sections we encounter the wonder of nature and the delight in life. Here are bird calls from piccolo, flute, oboe, and violin; there are folk dances, waltzes and hints of hymns. But, always, there is the creeping note of drift and dissonance. The end is coming.      

When it arrives in the final movement, it is vast and powerful, as is the Hallé’s performance of Mahler’s paean to the glory of life, and the mystery of its ending.

There was a palpable sense of awe in the Hall as the music soared and dissipated, returning each time with a little less vigour, until finally the last rally was followed by a slow, gentle surrender by the strings to the great silence.

Not that the silence lasted very long because the applause, from a deeply appreciative audience on what for many was an emotional night, was deafening and absolutely deserved.

Bravo the Hallé, and bravo mighty Mark Elder. Encore, encore! 

By Alfred Searls

Main image: Sir Mark Elder with the Hallé. Credit: Russell Hart.


For more information about the Hallé’s current season, click here.