Prom 27: Halle Orchestra / Elder, Royal Albert Hall, London


It was the second outing for a John Foulds piece in one week. But then it does tend to pour rather than rain at the Proms and this was the Halle Orchestra where Foulds’ dad once played the bassoon. April - England implies showers (which are rather plentiful in Manchester) but it’s the sunniness that you go away humming.

Foulds’ piece begins as if whistling a jaunty air; a simple canon or two is about as complicated as the invention gets. You can hear its origins as a piano piece – though not for long. Foulds’ highly individual way with orchestral colour and harmony inevitably proves self-enriching (fabulously so – a true Spring awakening) and the resultant polyphony climaxes with grandiose brass in vigorous counterpoint with busily ecstatic strings. Percy Grainger has been cited. Just so. The great orchestral “rambler” would have thoroughly approved.

He might have had a thing or two to say about Paul Lewis’ exquisite piano playing, too. This was the penultimate instalment of his Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle – the Third Concerto in C minor – and in some ways (thanks to Mark Elder’s characteristic sensitivity) the most “aware” in its orchestral interaction. In the chamber-like refinements of the long orchestral introduction it was almost as if Elder was drawing us into a comparison with Mozart’s very different C minor concerto. For Lewis, too, a diamond clarity and easy elegance characterised the opening paragraphs of the first movement with only the explosive arrival of the cadenza truly revealing Beethoven, the wild visionary. The passage in ethereal arpeggios towards the close of it found Lewis once more transforming the atmosphere in the hall.

In the slow movement’s opening solo the range of dynamics, the weighing of touch and inflection, suggested Beethoven in the moment of composition and Lewis in the moment of discovery. This wasn’t playing which drew attention to itself but rather which absolutely commanded attention.

And an altogether more immodest hero was waiting in the wings. Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”), the sacred domain of the great and good of orchestras and conductors, can now count the Halle and Mark Elder as worthy to join their ranks. This was hugely impressive stuff – showy, though never distastefully so, not even in the rollocking “battle with the critics” (I shall maintain a dignified silence) where horns and trumpets covered themselves with glory. There was poignancy, too, in Strauss’ long backward glance over his life and works and for once his “helpmate” – the feisty Lyn Fletcher, the Halle’s leader – was the right sex.

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