Elder and the Hallé in Varied Slavic Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Dvořák, Janáček: Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Choir & Hallé Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder (conductor) and Jamie Phillips (conductor). Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 10.11.2012. (MC)

Prokofiev:  Sonata for unison violins
Stravinsky:  Symphony of Psalms
Dvořák:  Scherzo capriccioso (conducted Jamie Phillips)
Janáček:  Sinfonietta

When I attend a Hallé concert these days such is the quality of the playing that I expect a great performance and my expectations are usually met. I had been eagerly anticipating this programme of music from four Slav-born composers. However, if the disappointing attendance was anything to go by it didn’t seem to appeal greatly to the Hallé’s Bridgewater Hall audience. It wasn’t that the programme was challenging but mainstream audiences seem to prefer more familiar works on a concert programme. I noticed that just three days prior to this concert the Hallé played in Nottingham, popularising the programme by substituting Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture for the Prokofiev and the Grieg Piano Concerto for the Stravinsky. In addition at just over seventy minutes this Hallé/Bridgewater Hall concert must have been one of the shortest I have attended; sadly an all-too-familiar trend these days.

It didn’t surprise me that Sir Mark chose to include an unusual or rarely heard work in the programme and one such work fitting that description opened the concert. I knew Prokofiev’s Sonata for Solo Violin but not the original version for unison violins, a work written for a group of student violinists. The fourteen casually dressed Hallé violinists conducted by Sir Mark got off to a slightly uneven start but soon settled down. The bright tone and pleasingly unified ensemble was a feature of the fine performance. Prokofiev’s score is reasonably appealing containing some vibrant writing but in truth I found it hard to connect to and it didn’t stay too long in the memory. As violins and violas are omitted from the subsequent Stravinsky work I could see the reasoning for including this Prokofiev sonata that employs multiple strings. It did feel like a missed opportunity as there are numerous scores for high strings of superior quality.

A masterwork of the twentieth-century, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is a favourite work of mine. A setting of Old Testament Latin text from Psalms 38, 40 and 150 the score is an authentic expression of Stravinsky’s Christian faith. I hold fond memories of a stunning performance I attended a couple of months ago at the Berlin Musikfest 2012 with Mariss Jansons conducting the Rundfunkchor Berlin and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. It was typical of this reinvigorated Hallé to rise to the considerable orchestral and choral challenges of Stravinsky’s multi-dimensional sound world. Sir Mark was adept at maintaining convincing forward momentum, ensuring the orchestra and choir provided sufficient vibrancy to reveal Stravinsky’s sacred inspiration as well as compelling drama. A highlight was the understated magnificence of the final pages of the score sung to the words ‘Alleluia, Laudate Dominum’. Here the timpani strokes at the closing measures sounded like a regular heartbeat that could easily have represented the fragility of human life. Compared to the Berlin Musikfest concert, what the combined Hallé forces lacked in terms of refinement and ethereal beauty they made up for with commitment and rapt expression.

After the interval Sir Mark explained to the audience the importance of fundraising to the financial management of the Hallé and thanked Nichols plc for sponsoring the evening’s concert. With the necessary formalities over Jamie Phillips the Hallé Orchestra’s recently appointed assistant conductor took the baton for Dvořák’s Scherzo capriccioso. Said to be one of Dvořák’s most popular works I cannot recall seeing it played live. For its approximately thirteen minutes’ duration I can think of several more worthy alternatives in Dvořák’s catalogue but in spite of its tedious repetitiousness it had its attractions. Maestro Phillips couldn’t have equipped himself better, delivering a performance of pleasing freshness that contained a delightfully carefree air.

The final work of the evening transported the audience to Moravia for the Sinfonietta by Janáček, that defiant, overbearing composer whose music is as individual as his character. Dedicated to the Czechoslovak Armed Forces this festive work calls for an extremely large orchestra including a greatly enlarged brass section needed for its crucial brass fanfares. I’m sure I counted twenty-six brass players, thirteen of whom were positioned to great effect directly behind the orchestra platform in the front choir seats. Tautly marshalled by Sir Mark, the Hallé’s orchestral playing felt vital and committed, igniting impressive firepower from the magnificent brass section. Whilst harnessing the potent energy of Janáček’s writing, the performance contained a gripping tension that was never allowed to overshadow the rhapsodic splendour.

Michael Cookson