Hallé’s Star Continues to Shine Brightly

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler, Janáček, Haydn: Angelika Kirchschlager (mezzo-soprano), Jacques Imbrailo (baritone), Hallé Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 13.4.2013. (MC)

Mahler: Songs from ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’
Janácek: The Fiddler’s Child
Haydn: Symphony No. 100 ‘Military’

The mark of the quality of an orchestra is not merely completing a wonderful performance but maintaining wonderful performances throughout the long season. As a regular attendee of Hallé concerts I believe there is some really special music making going on with this Manchester based orchestra of a standard that one would have to travel to a handful of European and American cities to better.

The first half of the concert consisted of Mahler’s set of orchestral songs ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ probably one of the Bohemia born composer’s most undervalued masterworks. Using texts from the collection of German folk poetry known as ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ this song cycle about love, separation and loss does take a rather romantic view of military life. This substantial and demanding cycle of twelve songs leaves its singers highly exposed and Sir Mark’s choice for his two soloists was an inspired one.

At last May’s Bridgewater Hall performance by the Hallé of Elgar’s The Apostles I recall South African born baritone Jacques Imbrailo standing out wonderfully in the role of Jesus. Here Imbrailo took a while to visibly relax and settle in these testing Mahler songs before quickly growing in confidence delivering his mellow timbre with purpose around the hall.

Right from her opening bars the radiant Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager, an experienced Lieder performer, could hardly have been more at home. In ravishing voice throughout Kirchschlager shimmered and sparkled. Nowhere was her control and expression better demonstrated than in Der Schildwache Nachtlied (The Sentinel’s Nightsong) rendered with such gloriously tender and natural fluid singing. Sir Mark presided over highly lyrical playing of this late-Romantic work that the Hallé was clearly relishing. At one point in the final song Der Tamboursg’sell (The Drummer Boy) I felt the orchestral playing was at an elevated level that I couldn’t imagine being bettered.

Suitably refreshed after the interval the audience settled down to hear a performance of Leoš Janáček’s rarely played ballad for orchestra The Fiddler’s Child. Composed a hundred years ago this year The Fiddler’s Child with its macabre programme is based on a poem by Svatopluk Cech about a widowed village fiddler who dies leaving behind a young sickly child and his fiddle in the charge of an old woman. In the morning the fiddle has vanished and the old woman can be seen rocking the lifeless body of the child. This hidden gem of the repertoire lasting around fourteen minutes was both thrillingly and movingly performed with the players marvellously handling Janáček’s highly individual sound world. Leader Lyn Fletcher’s significant solo violin part and the contribution of the four violas representing the anguish of the villagers that Sir Mark had positioned directly in front of the podium, excelled with playing that satisfied and also delighted.

Most conductors tend to place a Haydn symphony first on a programme in a way that almost serves to treat the score as a mere warm-up for the players. I know that Sir Mark will occasionally position an overture as the final work on the programme and in the same way he will sometimes conclude a concert with a Haydn Symphony. Haydn’s wonderful set of twelve ‘London’ symphonies was commissioned by the German born London based impresario Salomon with the Austrian composer making two trips to London to personally introduce the works. With its title the ‘Military’ the Symphony No.100 is one of the best known of the set. Seamlessly switching from lush late-Romantic works to classical repertoire the pared down Hallé played with remarkable accuracy and not insufficient character. So many Haydn performances seem disappointingly underpowered but not so here with Sir Mark who ensured a vibrantly fresh and buoyant performance that packed quite a punch.

Michael Cookson