tue 23/07/2024

Kim, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

Kim, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Kim, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

A new British symphony is born, surrounded by lashings of romantic style

'Sir Mark, it hardly needs to be said, is alert to all things dramatic in scores like this'Russell Hart

The world premiere of a symphony by a British composer – Huw Watkins – was the chief attraction in the latest Hallé programme with Sir Mark Elder at the Bridgewater Hall. The other music on the programme, however, held interest and indeed created a foil to Watkins’ work.

But first to his Symphony. Anyone looking for a contribution to a perceived “tradition” of British symphony writing would be hard put to place this one. It is of itself: one of a kind. Granted, it’s written for a fairly conventional large orchestra, but with nothing to frighten the horses in sound effect terms. Watkins can build a big and percussive sound (and didn’t we know it by the time we heard his last, stop-in-full-flow, bar), but he does so by effective traditional orchestration.

We were told the orchestra like it very much, and that was pretty clear

It’s also full of harmonious chord construction, has wide, swooping and soaring melodic intervals, and clearly incisive, often short, rhythmic units: in short, very listenable even if you don’t like “modern music”. Intertwining of rhythms and motifs to create a composite and subtly intriguing orchestral sound is something Watkins does very well.

There are two movements, of which Watkins’ own brief programme note says the first is very fast throughout, and the second has a more reflective character, “at least initially”. Notice the qualification. In reality, both finish a long way from the points where they start, and the impression at first created that Watkins has really written a concerto for orchestra (after his other concertos for soloists) has to give way to the conclusion that he’s created something symphonic in the sense that it travels. It’s an abstract musical argument (no programme), but it evolves, develops and surprises.

The opening, Allegro molto in 5/4 and then 3/4, mainly alternating between the two subsequently, displays solo and sectional themes in two groups and seems to be following an exposition-development-recapitulation plan, until it’s interrupted and almost abruptly fades away and splinters into pieces at the end. The second movement, Lento at the outset, features lovely cantilenas with oboe, flute, clarinet and harp prominent. But then things begin to change, and by the time the music ends the full orchestra is hammering away at an insistent, powerful rhythm. And it stops – just like that.

The Hallé sound was at its resplendent best in sections of this work, Elder in complete command of the intricacies and rising tensions of the piece. (We were told the orchestra like it very much, and that was pretty clear.)

Kim, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, ManchesterThe Berlioz overture and Brahms piano concerto that completed the programme provided points of comparison for the new work, as it happened. Rob Roy was one of Berlioz’ Prix de Rome pieces and he thought he’d destroyed all trace of it after the first performance, so much so that he re-used one of its main ideas in Harold in Italy. But the original has survived, and has its own vivid orchestration and big finish. There’s a tune for cor anglais and harp accompaniment (for which hear pipes and bardic strumming, perhaps – this is inspired by Walter Scott), and the music yearns its way for some distance until there’s an operatic-style trombone interruption – twice. Sir Mark, it hardly needs to be said, is alert to all things dramatic in scores like this.

Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto (of which Charles Hallé, as pianist, very nearly gave the British premiere – he announced it for a London concert and would have done it if the parts hadn’t been held up, finally getting there in Manchester a little later) has already been recorded, along with the first, by Leeds Competition 2006 winner Sunwook Kim (pictured above right), Sir Mark and the Hallé. Their interpretation is vigorous, passionate and winsome.

The opening was gentle, beautifully articulated by the strings – the two bodies of violins now on opposite sides of the platform, unlike in the earlier works. Kim has a bold, Romantic soul and an ability to make the familiar sound fresh and unusual. By the end of the first movement, there seemed little scope for any more appassionato to be evinced, as requested, in the second, but they gave it everything they could in the central section to add weight of emotion. The Andante wove its nocturne-like spell (lovely cello solo by Nicholas Trygstad), with exceptionally gentle tone from Kim, and in the finale the lilting rhythms were enjoyed to their utmost, with flexibility of pulse, a sense of dance and an appealing, nostalgic haze – before a very lively tail-piece, both soloist and conductor united in determination to make it so.


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