The First Concert of the Hallé Elgar Festival is a Real Delight

12/03/2017

Elgar: Madeleine Shaw (mezzo-soprano), Hallé / Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 9.3.2017. (MC)

Elgar – Symphony No.1; Overture Frossart; Grania and Diarmid; Pomp and Circumstance March No.3

It was a real delight to attend this first concert at Bridgewater Hall. I know many audience members were looking forward to The Dream of Gerontius three days later.

Sir Mark Elder must have conducted the First Symphony with the Hallé countless times maintaining a long tradition of playing Elgar. In fact it was the Manchester orchestra under Hans Richter who in 1908 gave the première of the First Symphony at Free Trade Hall. Six years ago I attended the Hallé under Sir Mark performing the First Symphony. It was a thrilling concert and I wrote “there are no better Elgarians around when Sir Mark Elder and his Hallé Orchestra take wing in music that just runs through their veins”. It seemed impossible that the orchestra could improve on such a memorable performance but this evening it did achieving an elevated level of excellence rarely encountered.

Marked by the heroic march theme Sir Mark conducted an expressive yet perceptively balanced reading of the epic opening movement. The contrast between the melancholic tension of the funereal tread and stormy episodes generated was remarkable. It’s not difficult to understand why Elgar’s expressive music has become associated with the Monarchy of Edwardian England. Intensely agitated, the scurrying main theme in the Scherzo-like movement was afforded a boldly swaggering momentum. By contrast the middle section had a stifling, yet graceful quality.  The transition to the heartbreaking theme of the Adagio was as seamless as I could imagine. This is meltingly passionate music: always gorgeously tender, often dreamy and combined with the scent and sounds of nature. Taking the breath away was the exquisite pianissimo the orchestra was able to achieve. Towards the conclusion of the movement it felt as if Elgar was depicting the deep sorrow of lovers parting, perhaps on a long ocean voyage. Sadly the spell was broken by a piercing cough timed right at the conclusion. Marked Lento – Adagio the final movement began almost furtively with an undercurrent of foreboding. Sir Mark provided robust rhythms in a passage high in buccaneering spirit before the return of the principal march theme. In this music of grandeur it was easy to imagine an important State occasion in Horse Guards Parade. Throughout the Hallé strings were outstanding and noticeably the eight double basses positioned elevated at the rear emitted a full, rich sound that didn’t overpower. Striking was the horn playing and I cannot fail to mention the beautiful clarinet playing. Entirely convincing this was a magnificent performance, compelling from the first note to the last.

After the interval Sir Mark took the microphone and explained how he was following the custom of Elgar’s time by playing the main work of the evening in the first part of the programme and the smaller, lighter works in the second half. This scheme came as no surprise as Sir Mark has often programmed overtures as the final work of the evening rather than as the opener. For what it’s worth my ideal second half would have included something more substantial, say the underrated symphonic study Falstaff.

Few would argue that the three works that comprised the second half Frossart Overture; Grania and Diarmid and Pomp and Circumstance March No.3 are Elgar’s greatest inspirations. A relatively early work, a curious blend of heroic and elusive innocence, I don’t often come across the concert overture Froissart compared to Cockaigne and In the South. For the play Diarmuid and Grania, a collaboration by George Moore and W.B. Yeats, Elgar wrote three pieces of incidental music originally for a small pit orchestra. With writing of a stark and eerie beauty the Introduction did not seem a million miles away from the sound world of Wand of Youth suites and Nursery Suite. Containing a wearisome, heavy tread the Funeral March convincingly reflected an aching sadness. Casting a magical spell but all over far too quickly the song There are seven that pull the thread was sung with accomplishment by Madeleine Shaw. Looking resplendently in a grey gown the mezzo-soprano with her lovely, steady tone displayed a sincere feeling for Yeats’ text. Undoubtedly taking many of the audience by surprise Sir Mark and the Hallé hurled straight into the dark foreboding of Pomp and Circumstance March No.3 with its drama-filled opening. The thought of merging the two works may have seemed something of a liberty but the idea worked admirably.

Michael Cookson

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