Mortality might be considered a brave choice as a theme for an evening at the symphony, but Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra has always taken risks. And while death as definite motif was never explicitly espoused in the pre-concert publicity it was nonetheless the definite subject at the Bridgewater Hall last week.

The journey began with the audience being slowly transported across the river Styx by an orchestra clearly in a contemplative mood, a mood eminently suitable for Sergei Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem Isle of the Dead.

This dark and brooding piece, composed in 1908 while Rachmaninoff was staying in Dresden, was inspired by the black and white version of Arnold Böcklin’s eponymous painting in which Charon ferries the souls of the newly dead across the Styx to Hades, the underworld of classical Greek mythology.

Slowly, rhythmically and with deep foreboding Rachmaninoff’s recurring figure in 5/8 time simultaneously depicts the rise and fall of the oars, the lapping of the waves and a slow, relentless progress through the mist that veils the uncertain nature of the afterlife for the transported soul.

In the hall the atmosphere became electric as the orchestra ceaselessly intensified the tension. A sense of dread, a dread of a nameless, shapeless ethereal Other, crept into the souls of the audience as they huddled together in the boat.

Arnold_Böcklin_-_Die_Toteninsel_III_(Alte_Nationalgalerie,_Berlin)A hint of brimstone was alive in the air and the music, along with the waves, surged with false peak after false peak until finally it slowed, gradually coming to a halt as the prow of the ferryman’s boat gently made contact with the Isle of the Dead.

All art is influenced by something and one of the great joys it offers is speculating upon those influences. Rachmaninoff is rightly seen, spiritually if not temporally, as the last of the great 19th century Russian Romantics. Yet in the Isle of the Dead there seems to be a darker echo of Sibelius, perhaps of the Lemminkäinen Suite. But in any event Isle of the Dead was both a thing of great darkness and a thing of great beauty, both expertly transmitted with great with pathos by the Hallé.

No less accomplished was the performance that followed of Kindertotenlieder, Mahler’s melancholic song cycle for voice and orchestra. Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) were taken from the meditations of the German Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert on the death of his two youngest children.

Through some form of tonal alchemy German, a somewhat unlovely language when spoken (except in recitation of poetry and here Heine and Rilke come to mind) often undergoes a sublime transformation when sung in a classical setting and Roderick Williams‘s operatic baritone performance was a fine example of this phenomenon.

Roderick Williams12 July 2010Williams sang with a restrained elegance that was sympathetic with both the music and its difficult subject matter. His treatment of the work cast a benign spell over the audience, his harmony helping it find that which Mahler had always intended should be found in the piece – the transcendent power of love, over which death has no dominion.

And then…Shostakovich.

The Hallé has a long history of successfully performing the works of Dmitry Shostakovich, and the great Soviet composer has long held a particular fascination for Sir Mark Elder, the Hallé’s long serving music director. When I interviewed him last year, he told me: “Shostakovich has fascinated me ever since I was 13 and I saw Kirill Kondrashin conduct the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra in the London première of his fourth symphony at the Royal Festival Hall,”

In a short pre-performance talk last week, Sir Mark said it was impossible to explain the music, to know precisely what Shostakovich’s purpose was in writing it. Intention in this case was subjective and it was up to each one of us to take what we could find within the piece.

Shostakovich was 65 when he wrote Symphony No 15. He wrote it quickly – in just a few months in the summer of 1971. Shostakovich said little about his motivation in writing the piece and what he did divulge was characteristically gnomic.

But when we remember that it was written late in life, and in a sanatorium where he was recovering from a bout of serious ill health, the theme of mortality sharpens into view. Not that Shostakovich (or anyone of his generation in the Soviet Union) was a stranger to death, having lived in the baleful shadow of half a century of Soviet Communism and a world war.

Opinion remains somewhat divided as to the extent of Shostakovich’s opposition to Soviet power. The great dissident writer Solzhenitsyn said of him: “That Shackled Genius Shostakovich would thrash about like a wounded thing, clasp himself with tightly folded arms so that his fingers could not hold a pen…that tragic genius, that pitiful wreck Shostakovich.”

What is not in doubt is the fact that at least twice in his life Soviet power came very close to destroying him. Being a respected figure in the arts, and previously held in high regard by the authorities, was absolutely no protection from the arbitrary terror imposed by the Soviet leaders upon their own people. So by the time he wrote Symphony No 15 Solzhenitsyn had been living with thoughts of death for some considerable time.

Dmitri ShostakovichThe work itself is divided into four equally strange parts, not least for the curious inclusion of a number of instantly recognisable musical quotations form Rossini, Wagner and Glinka.

The first movement opens with the sound of a glockenspiel and before long it slips unmistakeably, and repeatedly, into the Gallop from Rossini’s opera William Tell. What are we to make of this? Certainly this was one of the first pieces Shostakovich heard as a child but surely the allusion to a foreign historical figure who fought state tyranny was a dangerous choice for a Soviet composer? As Sir Mark speculated in his pre-concert talk, perhaps this was Shostakovich senior passing the the baton of intellectual subversion to his son, Maxim Shostakovich, who conducted the piece at its première.

In any event this curious first movement soon began to surge and the music commenced to slip and slide its way about the stage, darting first one way and then another, zig-zagging between the comrade musicians in its attempt to sneak off stage.

Amid the clever chaos of the score, the commissar conductor maintained disciple in the ranks and held the music to account. Harmony was fully never sacrificed by Shostakovich while atonality, the road of choice for the truly talentless in the last century, was never fully embraced.

The second more melancholic movement held, as promised by Sir Mark, much that was redolent of the music of those labouring under the repression of the previous half century. However, as the music filled the hall, it was not a Soviet sound, but something far older, far older even than Russian. This sound was Slavonic and expressed a lament heard before St Cyril gave the Slavs the letters with which to record their pain. It was a sound heard in Gulag, street and shtetl across the Soviet empire.

Sir Mark close up with the Halle in background.The third movement saw abrupt changes in direction and tone, the musical equivalent of a conversation with a particularly senile patient, yet each section had a perfection of its own. At times the music was almost inexpressibly strange; an irregular knocking, like a failing heartbeat; sudden snaps like the elastic breaking on another life; rattles redolent of the final coughs of the dying and bells summoning help that would never come.

With death clearly coming, wind and brass, stings and percussion combined to create a strange soundscape that crept across the hall like some eerie miasma, reminiscent of fever dreams, all of which were abruptly terminated with the sudden death of the movement.

The fourth movement opened with the long clear notes of Wagner, Die Walkure and the Ring, all of which were curiously subverted by yet more changes in style and tone until slowly settling into an acceptance of the symphony’s ultimate harmonic fate.

Through it all Sir Mark led his musicians with his customary passion and skill, driving them when the need arose and always, always coaxing more from both them and the music.

The result? It was the kind of sublime musical experience that would even have brought a smile to the face of that shackled genius Shostakovich.

By Alfred Searls

This concert can be heard on BBC Radio 3 on February 15, 2016 at 7.30pm  


What: The Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, February 2016  

  • Rachmaninov – Isle of the Dead  
  • Mahler – Kindertotenlieder  
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 15     

Where: The Bridgewater Hall   

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