Why attempt Richard Strauss's gargantuan Alpine Symphony? Because it's there – but also because a major 150th-anniversary season would be unthinkable without it. Yet it requires an orchestra even larger than Wagner assembled for the Ring, including nine horns (plus another dozen off stage), organ, cowbells, an esoteric bass oboe known as a heckelphone wind machine – the list goes on.
The Strauss' Voice season is being shared between the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic orchestras (along with the chamber-sized Camerata), but this was one of the rare occasions in which players from both merged into a single, enormous entity. The last time this happened was for the Mahler celebrations in 2010, when Mark Elder held the baton; now the configuration was reversed, with the Philharmonic's Juanjo Mena conducting and the Hallé's Lyn Fletcher in the leader's chair.
Strauss confessed that the compositional struggle of his last and largest tone poem gave him "about as much pleasure as shaking cockroaches from a tree". Yet Strauss was incapable of shaking a tree without enabling you to hear the individual insects scuttling away, and though Mena's handling of the work's grand arc from dawn to dusk was majestic, the fine detail had the intense glitter of water droplets within the profound buffeting delivered by this incredible, pan-Mancunian meta-band.
The season has been constructed around a complete cycle of Strauss's orchestral songs, and the standout items here were two of his most macabre inspirations for deep male voice. Roderick Williams gave a stygian reading of the deathly Notturno, whose wide, necrotic harmonies seemed to prefigure the stench of John the Baptist's pit from Salome; William Dazeley did not sing the manic Nächtlicher Gang so much as appear to become possessed by it. Each return to the painfully ascending refrain "There must be a way to the beloved one!" sounded like a man with hellhounds on his trail.