Prom 9 – Elder and the Hallé impress in a programme of 20th century classics

Sibelius, Bartok, Janáček : András Schiff (Piano), Hallé Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder (Conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London 21.7.2011 (RB)

Sibelius: Scenes historiques – Suite No. 2 Op 66 (1912)
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op 105 (1924)

Bartok: Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945)

Janáček: Sinfonietta (1926)

It was good to see a packed Royal Albert Hall for this concert consisting solely of twentieth century music. The first half of the programme was devoted to the music of Jean Sibelius and featured the second Scenes historiques suite, which is one of the composer’s lesser known works. It is his second set of historical scenes (the first was composed a year earlier) and, with its depiction of key events and personages from Finnish history, is a celebration of Finnish nationalism. It is in three movements: ‘La chasse’ (the hunt), ‘Chant d’amour (love song), and ‘Pres du pont-levis’ (at the drawbridge).

The first movement is an overture and features recurring horn calls which were to become such a feature of Sibelius’ music and galloping passages which give the piece its name. The articulation in the strings and dynamic control were particularly good. The harp takes centre stage in the second movement and provided lovely arabesques over the rich textures and harmonies in the orchestra. The final movement was light and charming and there was some particularly good playing from the woodwind.

Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony is in one continuous movement. The work is very tightly organised and has an organic unity; its several sections flow seamlessly into one another without clear demarcations (Sibelius compared the work to a river). I was not entirely convinced with the Hallé’s performance of this work. There was some lovely warm playing from the strings in the opening adagio and the orchestra seemed entirely at ease with the allegro molto moderato. However, other sections seemed a little sluggish and I was not persuaded that orchestra and conductor had really got under the skin of this admittedly somewhat elusive piece.

The arrival of András Schiff for the Bartok Third Piano Concerto signalled a step change in the concert, with conductor and orchestra raising their game. Schiff had a very clear and crisp tone in the opening Allegretto and there was some excellent articulation. He managed to bring out the rhythmic and percussive elements of the music while at the same time maintaining a beautiful tone. The evocation of nocturnal birds and insects in the middle of the second movement was quite magical with excellent interplay between Schiff and the orchestra. Schiff dispatched the neo-Baroque counterpoint in the final movement with exceptional clarity and his virtuoso technique came to the fore in an electrifying coda. The audience responded enthusiastically, earning Schiff a well-deserved encore.

Janáček’s Sinfonietta is in 5 movements: ‘Fanfares’. ‘The Castle’, ‘The Queen’s Monastery’, ‘The Street’ and ‘The Town Hall’. A large contingent of the Hallé’s brass section sat a few rows behind the main orchestra and they stood up to play the opening pyrotechnic fanfares, which were incisively punctuated by the timpanist. This was strong, muscular playing that was extremely well executed. The Hallé vividly characterised the themes in ‘The Castle’, and demonstrated rhythmic vitality and a wide range of tone colours. There was some warm and expressive playing from the strings and woodwind in the third movement while the famous trumpet fanfare which opens the fourth movement was fresh and confident. Elder worked the orchestra to a thrilling climax in the finale with the brass once again standing up to deliver the climactic fanfares. A powerful end to an excellent concert.

Robert Beattie