Soloist and Orchestra Battle Against an Unfriendly Acoustic

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Kodály, Prokofiev, Dvořák: Sunwook Kim (piano), Hallé Orchestra / Jamie Phillips (conductor), City Hall, Sheffield, 30.11.2014. (JK)

Kodaly: Dances from Galanta
Prokofiev: 3rd Piano Concerto
Dvorak: 9th Symphony


A thousand people watched the Hallé Orchestra open the concert with a brilliant performance of Kodály’s popular Dances form Galanta. The wind solos were executed sensitively with the clarinet’s sensual sound particularly attractive. The spectacular fiddle unisons were the highlight as they completed the work with a flourish.

It was in the Prokofiev Piano Concerto that the failings of the City Hall became more apparent with the middle range sounds of the piano disappearing into the roof, never to return. The pianist, Sunwook Kim, played with admirable virtuosity and the silvery, higher register sections played with the flutes rippled over the audience whilst the power of his playing the bass chords carried well. The dreamy passages within the slow movement were particularly attractive contrasting well with the composer’s celebrated more sardonic statements.

After the interval, Dvořák’s most famous work was played with ease by an orchestra whose members could probably have performed it from memory. However, the orchestra’s preference for having the second violins placed opposite the first is best appreciated in works with antiphonal writing. Dvořák, however, does not give this any prominence in his last symphony and, subsequently, the disadvantage of this arrangement becomes more apparent. The second violins have the f holes pointed away from the audience and, therefore, need to play louder to effect a balanced string sound. Strangely, this performance had the seconds playing with one desk fewer than the firsts which made their task still harder. Placed beside the violas, their joint struggle to match the firsts in the fast unison passages broke down over a couple of bars where one could see as well as hear their trailing the firsts in their bowing. Despite this, the orchestra is blessed with a strong and committed string ensemble who create a favourably lasting impression.

Unfortunately, the symphony was being performed in an acoustically wretched hall. If you sit at the back of the stalls, the wooden wall surrounds ensure that you hear the brass twice: once straight over the heads of the audience before you and again as the sound reverberates around the walls. To avoid this I sat near the front of the stalls only to receive a dulled echo off the surrounding walls when the horns played forte. The after-effect is akin to the feeling one has immediately prior to being sea sick. Everyone knows that the composer wrote his symphony ‘from the New World’ as he was feeling homesick – but I am sure that he would not have wanted to induce this quite different from of nausea. The attempt by the lower brass to play quietly proved too difficult as they sat beside the wooden, back walls. The cor anglais solo and the quieter passages with only string front desks playing were the most effective in drawing the audience closer to the composer’s thoughts. The performance was memorable as a fine orchestra performing against dreadful acoustic odds.

Joseph Kovaks

1 thought on “Soloist and Orchestra Battle Against an Unfriendly Acoustic”

  1. I didn’t attend this concert, but have been to a concert at this venue so can understand your comments about the hall.

    The following points I can’t understand. Most of this review is taken up complaining about the hall. Yes mention it but there’s no point in going on and on

    Why is there no mention whatsoever about the Conductor?

    It was standard practice for practically ALL music written pre WW1 or from Mahler backwards to split the first violins. I doubt if it was the idea of the orchestra more probably the conductor. Certainly this would have been the standard layout for any of Dvorak’s music.

    It is also standard practice to have 2 fewer 2nd violin players

    eg 16 1st’s, 14 2nd’s 12 viola’s, 10 cellos & 8 basses.

    This proportion would be used in 99% of symphony orchestras unless the score specifically stated otherwise

    If an orchestra turns up in a hall they are not used to and therefore obviously away from home, it is impossible to magic a few extra players out of nowhere!


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