A Welcome, Overdue Return to the South Bank by the Hallé

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Ravel, Janáček: Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Hallé Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London. 2.2.2013 (CD)

Vaughan Williams – A London Symphony (1913)
Ravel – Shéhérazade (1903)
Janáček – Taras Bulba (1918)

Sir Mark Elder’s introductory speech before this concert included the remarkable, and sad, fact that this is the first Hallé visit to the South Bank in almost 20 years.

The programme, part of the South Bank’s ‘The Rest is Noise’ season, brought three highly contrasting pieces from the first two decades of the Twentieth Century. The surprising choice of the Vaughan Williams ‘London’ Symphony to open with may well then have seemed like a way for the visiting Mancunians quickly to establish a rapport with the home audience.

The symphony evokes a bygone London, with Elder himself indicating that he sees Vaughan Williams looking back, when writing the score in 1913, to late Victorian London. Perhaps this informed a slightly restrained reading of the work. The sights and sounds of old London were all there, but viewed with dignity and reserve.

Given their long absence the Hallé can surely be forgiven for taking a little while to come to terms with the dry acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall. The opening of the symphony was wonderfully hushed and mysterious (compared by Elder to a Monet painting of the Thames), but as the movement progressed wind solos were somewhat backward and occasionally lost in the acoustic. The Allegro Risoluto of the first movement brought real intensity and drama but always with a degree of restraint.

The second movement Lento was nicely inward with warm, inflected playing from the violins and violas and some effective, plangent wind playing. The scherzo was neatly played but missed a little jollity early on, underplaying some of the contrasts with the later parts of the movement. At the end of the finale the closing solo in the H.G Wells-inspired Epilogue from principal viola Timothy Pooley was beautifully played with a nice poignancy leading into quiet stillness.

Overall, this was an effective reading of the symphony, highly atmospheric and with tempi that allowed the music to breathe. This was definitely a reading which looked back, though, rather than attempting to look forward to Vaughan Williams’s development as a symphonist.

The soloist in Ravel’s Shéhérazade was mezzo-soprano Christine Rice and she brought a highly expressive and strongly communicative approach to the work. Her tone quality suited the music well and she was particularly strong in her middle register. The Hallé provided sprightly but appropriately lush support. The flute playing of Katherine Baker in ‘La Flute Enchantée’ was delightful.

Elder gave a second short introductory talk before the Janáček. This may not be to everyone’s taste, but as a way of bringing the audience into the Taras Bulba story in an accessible way, in this instance it worked perfectly. The talk emphasised the experimental nature of the work together with Janáček’s underlying desire for the Russian nation to take its rightful place in the world.

Perhaps the focus on the Russian story led to a downplaying of the Czech connections and both the sound world and the rhythms both sounded less Czech-inflected than some performances. There was no lack of incident and bite, however, as the three stories – each describing the death of Taras Bulba or one of his sons – in each of the movements were strongly brought to life.

The opening ‘Death of Andrei’ movement was slightly restrained with nice cor anglais and oboe solos (and with any difficulties with the acoustics now fully overcome) but with a less characterful approach than would seem consistent with the story.

The second movement, ‘Death of Ostrap’, was more vivid with a fine striking E flat Clarinet solo describing Ostrap’s cries before he is executed. The ‘Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba’ finale was rhythmically taut and brought a dramatic and stirring conclusion which vindicated the decision to include this as the final item in the programme and ensured an enthusiastic response from the audience.

The playing of the Hallé was very strong throughout with very good – if not perfect – ensemble, nicely balanced tuttis and characterful wind and brass – I particularly enjoyed the gravelly trombones. A special mention for leader Lyn Fletcher, whose solos were outstanding throughout: nicely projected, poised and with tasteful use of vibrato.

This was a welcome return to the South Bank by the Hallé, with a well-played and effective programme. We can only hope that this will be the start of a series of more regular appearances in London.

Carl Dowthwaite