Mark Elder and the Hallé must hardly have been able to believe their luck. By unhappy good fortune, they scheduled Elgar's seldom-performed wartime cantata The Spirit of England at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, little knowing how topical it would prove to be. Though it's debatable whether "everyone on the platform", as he put it, shared Elder's wish to commemorate the passing of the Queen Mother, his dedication of the performance to someone who embodied "the spirit of England... and Scotland" (and, presumably, the rest of the UK) set the right tone.
With the passing of time, and several wars later, the three poems by Laurence Binyon that Elgar chose to set to music no longer speak with the same directness as in 1917, when the work was first played in its entirety. The words are dated but the music still conveys a "personal tenderness and grief".
Elder focused on the work's mixture of dramatic leanness and sparse, often subdued orchestration, his spacious reading capturing the work's idiom while making it sound curiously modern. It's all in the score, of course, especially Elgar's subtle use of rhythms and harmonies to illustrate both the rhetoric, "the thunder of the guns, the lightning of the lance and sword", and the sorrow of war at the sombrely underplayed setting of Binyon's most famous line, "They shall not grow old" ( the poet collaborated with Elgar over several alterations to his words).
Even the occasional clumsiness of word-setting passed unnoticed in a performance that revealed so much autumnal instrumental colouring, a chilling nerviness surrounding the wistful joviality of, "They went with songs to the battle", trailed by a sorrowful oboe.
The score is a fascinating patchwork, interwoven with reminiscences and quotations from The Dream of Gerontius, blatantly demonic at "the barren creed of blood and iron". The choral parts are more fragmented than in the oratorios, but they were sensitively handled by the Hallé Choir with a particularly poignant account of the solo part from Cheryl Barker.
It is a difficult work to follow, but 21 members of the Hallé's string section, playing standing up, gave a compelling performance of Strauss's Metamorphosen, its complex strands of texture seamlessly integrated into a civilised soulfulness. Finally, Sibelius's Fifth Symphony slotted neatly into a season of music ignited by war or patriotism. It was unfurled with breadth and power and, balancing the Finnish nationalist-romantic aspect of the music with Sibelius's deep concern for a cogent structural integrity, Elder drew particularly impressive playing from first woodwind and latterly brass. The rapt, almost intimate quality of the orchestral sound made the performance all the more effective.