United Kingdom Wagner, Mendelssohn, Brahms: Augustin Hadelich (violin), The Hallé / Nicholas Collon (conductor), City Hall, Sheffield, 20.4.2018. (CS)
Wagner – Die Meistersinger: Prelude to Act I
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64
Brahms – Symphony No.1 in C minor Op.68
My first visit to Sheffield coincided with three days of unseasonable Mediterranean weather, and as a warm glow swathed the city, so violinist Augustin Hadelich brought sunshine into City Hall with a wonderfully fresh, expressively controlled performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, alongside conductor Nicholas Collon and the Hallé Orchestra.
Hadelich draws a rich warmth from the lower strings of his 1723 ‘Ex-Kiesewetter’ Stradivarius which is complemented by the unstrained purity of the golden gleam of his E-string, and the concentrated cleanness of the latter was immediately felt at the opening of the Allegro molto appassionato – for Mendelssohn fulfilled his promise to the concerto’s commissioner and first performer, Ferdinand David: ‘The entire first Solo is to consist of the high e.’ For once, the soloist did not interpret ‘impassioned’ as ‘impetuous’. The judicious tempo adopted created spaciousness, allowing the soloist’s fluid ascents and arpeggio-meandering room to speak effortlessly and injecting airiness into the accompanying textures (though Collon took a while to settle into his soloist’s groove). It also ensured that a disjunctive change of pulse for the second subject (where it frequently feels as if the brakes have been slammed on) was avoided, thereby enhancing the structural coherence.
Hadelich offered so much to admire and enjoy. The melodic arches soared and shone; the triplet staccato double-stops that precede the reflective second subject were feathery light but incisive; the lyricism of the song-like second theme was strikingly focused and complemented by some fine playing by the flutes and clarinets; the rapid passagework was flawlessly executed but also musically shaped. There was intensity of tone without the merest hint of tension – one climactic peak rang with a resonance and power one would imagine it was impossible to produce from the few inches of bow Hadelich deployed. The first-movement cadenza was fluid: Hadelich did not dwell too long in the troughs or at the peaks of the increasingly fervent flourishes and sustained a fullness of tone throughout the double-stopped chords, before dancing into the orchestra’s recapitulation of the first theme with a spiccato so light that it fairly flew across the strings.
I could go on with such eulogistic observations indefinitely! So, suffice it to say that at the end of the movement, when Hadelich finally released the music’s latent energy and surged towards the close, I was excitedly anticipating the soothing balm of the Andante. The sustained bassoon-note which conjoins the two movements was unusually, and pleasingly, prominent, and bassoonist Joshua Wilson infused it with a lovely bloom and fade, creating an impelling flow towards the hazy woodwind unwinding and the strings’ rocking lull that welcomes in the soloist. Again, Collon didn’t judge the tempo quite right, starting off a little too lazily for Hadelich, but things quickly settled, and the accompaniment was both well-defined and delicate throughout the opening theme, which span with characteristic silvery sweetness, but sufficient propulsion to make the transition to the more intense central episode seem entirely natural. Again, the luxuriant beauty of Hadelich’s tone in the double-stopped oscillations and octave surges was striking, and Collon shaped the orchestral responses to the soloist’s urgent pronouncements discerningly. At the close, as he climbed with shining warmth high up the G string, Hadelich’s melody epitomised the blend of tenderness and nobility that had characterised the movement.
Hadelich held the ensuing silence for quite a while, but the short Allegretto introduction to the Allegro molto vivace was a signal to sit on the edge of one’s seat. And, vitality surged forth in the initiating flourishes of the final movement, the soloist’s harmonics ringing like a flash of light as the bow whipped across the strings. Watching the repeated up-bows leap lightly but with astonishingly equal definition made me resolved to do some more practice! But, the Hallé’s violin sections proved equal to their own technical challenges, while the cellos breezed through the second theme’s complementary lyricism smoothly and cheerfully, the racing tempo keeping any hint of saccharinity at bay. And, the horns matched them for mellow ease with the theme’s repetition. After the fury of the build towards the climax, there was a pleasing lucidity to Hadelich’s finely defined trills to which the woodwind added a palette-cleaning freshness. Despite the eagerness of the audience to hear more, Hadelich denied them an encore. And rightly so, too: he’d said all he needed to say. ‘Astonishing,’ I heard one audience-member declare. To which I have only ‘and wonderfully satisfying’ to add.
The concert had begun with the Prelude to the first act of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, the rich resonance of the brass’s opening pronouncement and the tutti’s marching stride matching the red glow which illuminated the decorative grilles of the Oval Hall. Collon made a good attempt to balance the bombastic imperiousness of the Nurembergers’ civic and personal pride with the tenderness of Walter’s prize-winning love song, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that the various episodes cohered, and there was a slight loss of ensemble in some of the energetic string passages. Somehow the glorious climax didn’t quite make the mark it can and should: perhaps it was that the prelude did not seem sufficiently ‘operatic’?
After the interval the Hallé’s performance of Brahms’ First Symphony offered many musical treats, though, not least some fine playing from the horns whose alertness and prominence in the first movement Allegro provided a welcome injection of vigour and whose reprise (played by Laurence Rogers) of the theme at the end of the Andante sostenuto, alongside oboist Stéphane Rancourt, complemented by leader Paul Barritt’s beautiful violin solo (some accomplished bow control and a lovely warm tone), was one of the highlights of the symphony.
Overall, I felt, however, that Collon, who conducted from memory, hasn’t yet quite got the measure of this symphony. Or, at least, he didn’t on this occasion locate the buried rhythmic tensions whose tugging, at times contentious, disputes drive the music forward towards their inevitable unravelling and the symphony’s resolution. I was repeatedly surprised by Collon’s technique. He has a clear beat, but frequently clutched his baton in the palm of his right hand, and held it by his side, pointing to the floor, while he waved his left hand in curving gestures. This was perfect for the more relaxed episodes: the start of the Andante unfolded with beguiling gentleness, for example, and the reprise of the main theme of the finale had a wonderfully consoling ease, as it was shaped into expansive arcs of strong breadth. But, it didn’t quite work in the tauter passages where the syncopated arguments lacked a defining ‘bite’ and the rhythmic arguments lost a driving distinctness. The third-movement intermezzo had charm and graciousness, but the ensemble in the trio, as the falling three-note motif tumbled across the orchestra, was not always water-tight.
I found the harmonic tensions of the first movement’s Un poco sostenuto introduction a little ill-defined too: the timpani’s ominous thumps echoed resoundingly but the orchestral texture and harmonies felt a little ‘smudged’. Perhaps that was the intention – to create a disquieting anxiety; but, I prefer to hear the chromatic inter-weaving of the woodwinds with more clarity. That said, Collon judged the Adagio which precedes the finale expertly. Here, the troubled chromatic winding and pounding drum-beats were tightly bound and Collon drove the introduction effectively towards the glorious hymn of the Allegro non troppo. In this final movement, the various ‘parts’ made a much more convincing ‘whole’ – interestingly, Collon’s baton beat with crisp definition here – and the concert concluded with the blazing euphoria of Brahms’s celebratory coda.
For more about the Hallé click here.