Hail Hallé’s Assistant Conductor in Program of Romantic Composers

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Richard Strauss, Rachmaninov, Mendelssohn, Wagner: Alexander Romanovsky (piano), Hallé Orchestra / Andrew Gourlay (conductor), Town Hall, Cheltenham, 10.3.2012. (RJ)

Strauss R: Serenade in E flat for 13 wind instruments, Op 7
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor. Op 16
Mendelssohn: Symphony No.5 in D major, Op 107
Wagner: Overture to Tannhäuser

I haven’t heard the Hallé playing live for some years and I approached this concert with some trepidation wondering if the orchestra’s proud tradition would be maintained. At first glance they seemed to be offering a strange programme with the overture right at the end. The conductor was unknown to me, although I read that he had won a conducting competition in Spain; and the concert began with just a handful of musicians on the platform, which suggested the other members of the orchestra had opted to have a leisurely supper before getting down to work.

However, the start of the concert was an unalloyed delight as the winds of the Hallé gently eased us into the concert with this delightful serenade by the 17 year old Richard Strauss. The composer tended to downplay this work in later years, but this warm and intimate performance – rather different from the rest of the concert – revealed its strengths.

The Serenade brought Strauss to public attention, as did the Piano Concerto No 2 for Rachmaninov. These days the concerto suffers from over-exposure, but thanks to the elegant playing of the Ukrainian virtuoso Alexander Romanovsky and lush sounds from the orchestra I quickly fell under its spell once again. I enjoyed the delicacy Romanovsky brought to the slow movement before going on the attack – but a very musical attack – in the boisterous finale.

Mendelssohn was 21 when he composed the Reformation Symphony for the 300th anniversary of Luther’s Augsburg Confession of 1530. In the event the celebrations had to be cancelled due to political unrest, and perhaps it was this disappointment that led to the composer’s low regard for it. Conductor Andrew Gourlay, however, admires the work greatly and explained why in his informative introduction.

It is certainly an ambitious symphony which includes allusions to the final symphonies of both Haydn and Mozart in its first movement. One sensed that Gourlay had done his homework as he moved seamlessly between the Catholic tradition to the first stirrings of Protestantism and rode fearlessly into the storm which the theological differences unleashed. By the end of the movement there was an uneasy calm; the conflict might have died down but was hardly resolved with the intervention of the Dresden Amen familiar to both sides…. and also familiar to opera-goers as the Grail theme inWagner’s Parsifal.

The two inner movements provided a respite: first an unusually melodious scherzo followed by a song without words played with feeling. Then a solo flute intoned the strains of Ein fester Burg (appropriate since Luther was a flautist), the orchestra joined in, and the grand finale got under way. Luther’s great hymn appeared in various guises as the contrapuntal traditions of the Baroque and the fervour of the Romantic tradition bonded together leading up to a magnificent restatement of the chorale.

With such a grand climax one might have thought that this was sufficient excitement for one evening. But there was more to come with the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhäuser approaching from the distance, the volume increasing to such a pitch that one felt the faithful were marching through the Town Hall itself. Their place was usurped by music of a more secular and erotic nature as the Venusberg came into view. This was an overwhelming performance with the Hallé musicians performing with remarkable commitment and energy.

It used to be said that the Hallé gave their best performances under the legendary Sir John Barbirolli who rebuilt the orchestra virtually from scratch in the closing years of World War II. Judging from this impressive performance it is evident that they are enthused by and have every confidence in their young assistant conductor. I wonder if we should be hailing Andrew Gourlay as the new Barbirolli.

Roger Jones