Intense Vaughan Williams’ Fifth from Sir Mark While Gourlay Invigorates Dvořák

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Dvořák, Elgar: Hallé Orchestra, Mark Elder (conductor), Andrew Gourlay (conductor – Dvořák), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 9.11.2011

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5
Dvořák: Serenade in D minor
Elgar: Overture Cockaigne (In London Town)

I know of no more fervent champion of British music than Sir Mark Elder. His undoubted passion is a discriminating one with the deciding factor being that everything programmed must be of high quality.

For this Bridgewater Hall concert the audience were treated to a pair of substantial British scores: the Symphony No. 5 from Vaughan Williams and Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture. Nestled comfortably between was Dvořák’s Wind Serenade. Positioning the Symphony as the first work in the evening’s programme, placing the Overture last and including a score for chamber ensemble was just the sort of novel programming I have come to expect from Sir Mark. Clearly this was a design with its origins in the traditions of the symphony concerts of the past.

Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 5 is a hugely powerful work not because of writing of vicious force but for its intense concentration of serene beauty. Sir Adrian Boult’s description of the score “Its serene loveliness is completely satisfying” seems incongruous with the horrors of the world war that was raging during the time of its composition. I cannot think of another conductor around today better equipped to conduct this score than Sir Mark and he didn’t disappoint. Haunting horns over dark and mysterious low strings opened the Preludio prefacing the predominant mood of absorbing introspection. At times the Hallé’s playing felt evocative of opening a window onto a winter fenland scene with early morning mist clinging to the moist earth. How the swirling Scherzo heaved with activity with Sir Mark underlining a sense of discontent and apprehension. Beautiful long rhapsodic melodies were a feature of the Romanza. At one special point the playing from the Hallé was so rapt that time seemed to stand still. Stunningly played by Stéphane Rancourt and Thomas Davey the writing for the combination of oboe and cor anglais could only have come from the pen of Vaughan Williams. During this movement I was struck by the unity and appealing timbre of the glorious Hallé string sound. The character of the Passacaglia, finale was a curious blend of anxiety, fuelled with excited anticipation and the peaceful and glowing conclusion felt just perfect.

The Hallé’s assistant conductor Andrew Gourlay directed Dvořák’s D minor Serenade for winds and string ensemble. In this richly melodic score Gourlay ensured a glowing and invigorating interpretation that contained much to delight the listener. I especially enjoyed the rapturous folk dance melodies in the Menuetto and the passionate interplay between oboe and clarinet played by Stéphane Rancourt and Lynsey Marsh in the Andante was wonderfully done. Any residual seriousness was blown away by the ebullient high spirits of the animated finale.

Normally presented as a curtain raiser, Elgar’s concert overture CockaigneIn London Town’ provided an exhilarating climax to the evening. With this dazzling tone poem, a picturesque depiction of the diverse sights and sounds of Edwardian London life, there was fiery ardour to the Hallé’s thrilling rendition.

Michael Cookson