Vital and Exuberant Playing from the Hallé

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Tchaikovsky, Barber, Delius, Shostakovich: Valeriy Sokolov (violin), Hallé Orchestra / Andrew Gourlay (conductor), Westmorland Hall, Kendal, Cumbria,  16.2.2013 (MC)

Tchaikovsky: Fantasy Overture: Romeo and Juliet
Barber: Violin Concerto
Delius: The Walk to the Paradise Garden
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6

Andrew Gourlay; photo credit: Natalia Espina López
Andrew Gourlay; photo credit: Natalia Espina López

I’ve seen a lot of the Hallé recently. Less than a week ago I was at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester for their stunning concert performance of act 3 of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger conducted by music director Sir Mark Elder. Tonight I’ve followed the orchestra north to Kendal for a concert at the Westmorland Hall hosted by the Lakeland Sinfonia Concert Society*. Past assistant conductor Andrew Gourlay took the baton for a programme that they have already played twice this week. I should think that many of the audience were hearing the Barber Violin Concerto and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 6 for the first time. Not that these are difficult scores but I was pleased that the orchestra didn’t alter the programme to contain more popular works, a practice that can be all too common when an orchestra plays concerts away from their home concert hall.

The concert opened with Tchaikovsky’s marvellous Fantasy Overture: Romeo and Juliet – a ‘warhorse’ of the repertoire but no worse for that. Nothing seemed overblown in this highly romantic score and Gourlay directed a highly lucid performance, obtaining a glowing palette of colours. Not purpose built for concerts the Westmorland Hall acoustic seemed particularly unforgiving for the horns which sounded a touch sour; strangely the piccolo did too. The dark and mysterious opening in chorale style, a depiction of Friar Laurence no less, sounded as fine as I have ever heard it. Tchaikovsky keeps the glorious love theme back, but when finally revealed it sent a shiver down the spine. After this the performance seemed to sag a little before Gourlay recovered with a satisfyingly dramatic finale.

I’ve already heard Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto played this season by star American soloist Sarah Chang. In recent years this appealing work has deservedly become an established part of the concerto repertoire. Ukrainian violinist Valeriy Sokolov was an excellent guide playing with assurance and just the right degree of expression. Whereas Sarah Chang squeezed every last ounce of sugary expression from Barber’s writing, Sokolov’s interpretation of restrained passion was no less affecting. Playing with a lovely sweet tone the beautifully lyrical Andante was worth the ticket price alone. It would be remiss not to mention the ravishing playing of principal oboe Stéphane Rancourt in his extended solo that opened the movement with such limpid beauty. Sokolov’s performance of the Presto a perpetuum mobile was as punchy as I expected, creating a dazzling bravura conclusion.

With the Hallé’s long tradition of playing the music of Delius, naturally expectations were high for The Walk to the Paradise Garden and the orchestra didn’t disappoint. The magnificent idyllic nature of the music shone through. In a wash of beautiful sound Gourlay expertly unfolded Delius’s fragrant harmonies and steamy textures.

From the warmth of Delius’s atmospheric glow of sound Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 heralded a distinct change of mood. Written around the time of Stalin’s purges and just prior to the Second World War the Sixth Symphony made a striking and powerful end to the evening’s programme. The first movement Largo evoked a bleak and worrisome existence enveloped in an icy chill; concluding with an eerie calm. In the Scherzo with music swirling like a merry-go-round the Hallé confidently provided well judged weight and volume. Gourlay maintained a firm grip throughout the Presto: Finale that just crackled along. With such disarming vitality and exuberance the excellent Hallé played as if their life depended on it.

* The Lakeland Sinfonia Concert Society: http://www.lakelandsinfonia.org.uk/

Michael Cookson