mon 15/07/2024

Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - a fine and fitting finale for Sir Mark | reviews, news & interviews

Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - a fine and fitting finale for Sir Mark

Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - a fine and fitting finale for Sir Mark

An immediately attractive new choral-orchestral work from Sir James MacMillan

Thoroughly theatrical: Sir Mark Elder with the HalléAlex Burns, the Hallé

When it was first announced that Mark Elder was to become music director of the Hallé, I phoned a friend who knew him well from serving on his staff at English National Opera in earlier years. “He’s completely devoted,” he said. “He never does anything superficially, he’s always well prepared, he’s a good orchestra trainer, and he’ll last longer than other conductors.” It was a description and prediction that was amply fulfilled in the following quarter-century.

And, with characteristic meticulous planning and awareness of what was right for the occasion, Sir Mark chose to present a European premiere for the last Hallé concert in his leadership role at the Bridgewater Hall: a 20-minute choral and orchestral work by James MacMillan, commissioned by the Hallé, called Timotheus, Bacchus and Cecilia. (It had its world first last year at Cincinnati under Juanjo Mena.)

It's a setting for adult and children’s choirs and orchestra of words by Dryden, from one of his odes for St Cecilia’s Day – the same as that set in adaptation by Handel as Alexander’s Feast – contrasting the power of music to arouse joy and inspire conquest with the destructive effects of warriors’ drinking, and then invoking the patron saint of music, a martyr who, it is said, drew angels to this earth.

It's scored for a large orchestra with plenty of percussion and is immediately attractive to the listener. Perhaps, like that other account of a feast, written by Walton for Leeds in 1931, it will take its place as a favourite work for big northern choral forces.

After an agitated opening and stabbing brass chords over a drawn-out violin motif, it begins with the children setting the scene (of Alexander the Great celebrating victory), and as the full choirs unite its rich textures speak of “heavenly joys” and “the power of mighty love” – only to be interrupted by an explosion of sound as warlike inspiration assumes centre stage and Alexander seems to be “a present deity”. The role of Bacchus, with calls to sound the trumpets and beat the drums, introduces a march and scurrying figures in the orchestra, and ultimately a long, lamenting theme.Members of the Halle Youth Choir in performance cr Alex Burns, the HalleThe children again take the lead as they introduce a gentle chant invoking St Cecilia (enhanced with passionate harp, strings and violin solo beautifully rendered by Hallé leader Roberto Ruisi), and a polyphonic texture builds to a climax in the reference to Cecilia’s music bringing heaven to earth: there’s a massive orchestral peroration, a pause, and a hummed final choral chord.

It was thoroughly theatrical – something Sir Mark Elder always enjoys – full of striking effects, a showpiece for the combined Hallé Choir and Hallé Youth Choir (pictured above), and appealing in the role it gave the Hallé Children’s Choir voices, which were confident and strong.

The remainder of the programme was a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which was one of Sir Mark’s big Manchester successes, once resources permitted for such undertakings, in the Hallé series (in 2006). He brought it back in 2010, again to a reception that brought forth what Charles Hallé used to call “the Manchester roar”, and, as one of most archetypal darkness-to-light symphonies ever written, it was redolent of the journey the orchestra has been through since the uncertain days at the close of the past century, when the Elder era began.

In this performance there was again a clear sense of musical structure as well as dramatic sequence, transparency of texture, and resolute adherence to the many instructions Mahler gives conductors in his score. In the first two movements Elder’s even speeds worked sustainably for all the changes of tone and atmosphere, with some glorious playing from the strings (violas especially) and the brass in the build-up to the chorale-style climax.

The waltzing Scherzo had both vigour and a sense of carefree abandon, with the horn section, led by Laurence Rogers – who also stood to take the solo role – enjoying their time in the spotlight (pictured below), and indeed all the wind principals shining as their moments came. The symphony is a great orchestral demonstration piece, and the famous Adagietto – a love song without words – was the string body’s chance to show its quality, in both choir-like resonance and that point-of-bow delicacy which was the Hallé’s signature in Barbirolli’s time and has become so again.Members of the Halle horn section, Laurence Rogrers standing cr Alex Burns, the HalleFor the finale we heard clean, invigorating playing of the counterpoint, at a pace which was filled with life but also capable of the gracioso which Mahler keeps on asking for, and a clever handling of the tempo changes that build towards the rush to the finish line. That itself is always a challenge: the composer who so often says “Don’t hurry” now asks for 52 bars of acceleration without let-up to the end: when it works it’s absolutely thrilling.

At the end, with everyone in a packed house on their feet and cheering, Sir Mark made a brief speech about those things that had given him most fulfilment in the years he’d devoted to the Hallé – the exploration of repertoire, the formation and continuation of the pyramid of choirs, the deepening role of the orchestra in its community – and urged people to keep on supporting it. Then, with a mention of a party to come the following day (his 77th and also Elgar’s birthday), and because it seemed the audience wouldn’t let him go in any other way, they played Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit as an encore: as perfect, and as heartfelt, a way as there could have been to say thank you and good night. 

  • Sir Mark Elder conducts the same programme with the Hallé Orchestra, Hallé Choir, Hallé  Youth Choir and Hallé Children’s Choir at the BBC Proms on 21 July, and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Hallé Orchestra in concerts at the Aldeburgh Festival on 23 June and the Edinburgh Festival on 17 August

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