Sir Mark and the Hallé Give Magnificent Tchaikovsky Performance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stravinsky, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky:  Jack Liebeck (violin), Hallé / Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 7.10.2013 (MC)

Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1918/20, rev. 1945/47)
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor (1838/44)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.5 in E minor (1888)

I resisted the temptation of the Britten opera Death in Venice at the Salford Lowry. What drew me to this Hallé concert was the prospect of hearing the starkly disparate music styles of the two works, written only thirty years apart, from the pens of fellow Russian composers Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.

The exiled Stravinsky said of his Symphonies of Wind Instruments, a score that eschews the lush, romantic possibilities of string instruments, that it “is not meant to please an audience or arouse its passions.” Sir Mark Elder stated the Hallé had not played the score for many years and in some ways it rather felt like it. With real economy Stravinsky uses a mere 23 wind players in combinations creating quickly shifting blocks of sound (or litanies). Although the Hallé played with reasonable precision I wanted the performance to contain more grey metallic-like austerity that I remember being achieved in a 2010 Berlin concert by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Mariss Jansons.

There are few more attractive works in the repertoire than Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor which was actually his last substantial orchestral work. Mendelssohn wrote the score of this perennial favourite for the renowned violinist Ferdinand David, a kindred spirit with whom he worked in Berlin. London born soloist Jack Liebeck replaced Alina Ibragimova who withdrew at very short notice. Liebeck is no stranger to the Hallé having made his concerto debut with the orchestra aged fifteen, but I did wonder how much preparation he had had for this concert. Immediately I was struck by the soloist’s sweet tone and his technical assurance was clearly evident, but despite some appealing playing I never felt Liebeck fully engaged with the music. The sympathetic support from the Hallé was unyielding yet Liebeck was unable to communicate sufficient emotion. I had a sense of a talented soloist playing safely with his intellect and not his heart.

One of the most admired of his major works Tchaikovsky composed his Fifth Symphony in the summer of 1888. This highly personal work was begun when the composer was suffering from a deep depression that knocked his self-confidence and left him feeling physically unwell. Following a move to a village outside Moscow Tchaikovsky’s state of mind became much more relaxed as he enjoyed the peace and quiet of his new surroundings and found great pleasure from his garden. Under Sir Mark the Hallé were marvellous guides in this symphony’s glorious journey from darkness to light displaying a wealth of sumptuous themes along the way.

In the opening movement the renowned ‘fate’ theme, given as a dark and sombre introduction on the pair of clarinets, sounded impressive. One soon realised that Sir Mark and the Hallé had something special to say so effectively underscoring the lyrical nature and drama of the score. At times one sensed how close Tchaikovsky’s expressive music is in temperament to his ballet scores. A torrent of passion tugged at the heartstrings bubbling up to the orchestra’s full force climaxes.

Appearing early in the Andante the famous horn solo over edgy strings was sadly played unsteadily. Thankfully no such problems occurred with the magnificent oboe solo. Raw emotions rapidly rose to the surface with the ‘fate’ motto resulting in the mighty brass section twice crushing the mood. Sir Mark asked for and obtained profuse amounts of emotional force and a compelling feeling of intensity and passion. This glorious music must assuredly represent the composer’s feelings around a love affair.

Coming as rather a relief after all the emotional drama the elegantly flowing waltz in the third movement could have easily represented a dance scene in a stately ballroom in Imperial Russia. I loved the way the Hallé provided the sense that an unsettling undercurrent was never far from the surface gloss. In a ghostly guise the ‘fate’ motif returned in the closing pages with notably impressive playing by the clarinet and bassoon principals.

In the final movement the ‘fate’ motif felt like an exultant statement from an extremely emotional composer. Assuredly Sir Mark quickened the pace with this tension filled music rapidly careering headlong together with a roaring increase in volume. The dramatic playing from the Hallé players continued to drive the music forward ending as a stirring proclamation of triumph over adversity.

Worthy of special praise throughout were the Hallé strings, whose playing shone like molten gold, and the brass excelled with such confident fanfares. Sir Mark’s heightened awareness for atmosphere, texture and pulse provided a thrilling reading of distinction. It was hard to imagine anyone not responding positively to the Hallé’s magnificent performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

Michael Cookson


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