Manchester begins its Mahler cycle

Martin CullingfordMon 18th January 2010

The BBC Philharmonic launches the city's thought-provoking journey

Remembrance, and echoes of the past. Manchester is a city full of echoes (perhaps all cities are?). The elegant glass prow of the Bridgewater Hall is docked amid gentrified canals and warehouses which testify to the industrial past. Nearby, the old façade of the Free Trade Hall, where the Hallé made its early pioneering performances, still stands, affixed to a modern hotel behind.

And of other genres too. In the shadow of Bridgewater Hall you can walk along a canal where, cut into the wall of an apartment building where The Haçienda club once stood (itself in a former warehouse), you’ll find a timeline of the iconic bands who once played there: Joy Division, The Smiths, The Stone Roses…

And elsewhere. The dock cranes which stand amid the high-rise sheen of Salford Quays. The red post box, the closest object to and bizarre survivor of the bomb which devastated the city centre in 1996, the year the Bridgewater Hall opened.

A celebratory anniversary year is a time of remembrance, and Manchester’s three orchestras – the BBC Philharmomic, the Hallé and the Manchester Camerata – are marking 150 years since Mahler’s birth. All 10 symphonies, plus Das Lied von Der Erde (in its reduced version by Schoenberg, courtesy of the Camerata) are being performed, each one paired with a specially commissioned contemporary work.

The project began on Saturday with Symphony No 1 (first heard in the city in 1913, two years after Mahler’s death), though before it we heard a new work from fellow Viennese composer Kurt Schwertsik. It too is rich in remembrance. Called Nachtmusiken, the title recalls the two Night Music movements of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, though it is, most appropriately, the First whose ghost makes a musical appearance, in the last movement.

Schwertsik “didn’t want to refer to [Mahler’s] style or quote his material”, and instead has “attempted to create the atmosphere of Vienna around 1900…and relate this to certain youthful memories of my own”. Janácek’s spirit hovers over the opening movement, while the third is an elegy to British writer and critic David Drew, who died last summer. But there is poignant elegiac writing too in the work’s second movement, led by the accordion, an instrument whose voice always seems to be sighing for the past.

Mahler’s First Symphony was a younger man’s work, and opens with an evocation of the forests around his childhood home. There’s remembrance too, in a darker way, in the funereal third movement, which begins with the melancholic, minor key rendition of Frère Jacques, punctuated by a burst of popular music.

The BBC Philharmonic, under its conductor Gianandrea Noseda, played throughout with vivid attention to individual themes, and was exhilaratingly full-throttle when the score called for it – in particular in the ultimately victorious end of the Mahler. It sounded like an ensemble excited about the journey ahead – a journey about which Manchester should, if this evening is a guide, feel very enthused.

See Mahler in Manchester 2010 for details of the series.

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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