The Hallé/Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Halle doesn't need the permission of a former home secretary to celebrate Englishness. Although it bears the name of its German-born founder, the orchestra has long been proud of its place in English musical history.

The Halle doesn't need the permission of a former home secretary to celebrate Englishness. Although it bears the name of its German-born founder, the orchestra has long been proud of its place in English musical history.

This season alone, it embraces English composers as diverse as Edward Elgar, Michael Tippett and Ivor Novello, and manages to do so without a whiff of chauvinism. (I'm not sure that this extends to the last night of the Hallé proms, however, which Mark Elder, its music director, has so far wisely avoided, given his well-publicised antipathy to the nationalist sentiments equated with that occasion.)

In an evening in which Elder presented a meticulously drawn musical "self-portrait" of Elgar, it was evident that the composer's Englishness, like national identity itself, was complex, constantly changing and elusive. While you could almost visualise the chivalric incidents behind the music of Froissart - all lances and loyalty, religious faith and romantic fidelity - in the composer's response to Walter Scott's Old Mortality, Elgar's Englishness is a cultural notion that's rather easier to experience than to explain.

Elder, an inspired Elgarian who has a special relationship with this music, captured the celebratory dimension of Froissart while underpinning the sense of foreboding that seems to seep through even Elgar's lighter pieces. Any fear that Elder might verge on the ponderous was banished with the introspective mood of Sospiri, a haunting memento mori encapsulating the composer's unease in 1914; in the wistful pair of miniatures Dream Children, whose elegiac quality the orchestra captured to perfection; and in the restless ebb and flow of the Prelude to The Kingdom.

The first half of the concert reached a neat climax in Elgar's fairly outrageous arrangement of Bach's C minor Fantasia and Fugue, which encouraged some beautifully pointed woodwind playing, snarling brass and scampering strings.

The Music Makers is often in danger of sounding like a melting pot of fragments of Elgar. Themes jostle for attention from references to the Enigma Variations, Gerontius, Sea Pictures and the Second Symphony, to echoes of Rule Britannia! and La Marseillaise.

In Elder's sensitive reading, radiant and noble, the Hallé's ensemble glowed with silky refinement. The emphasis on restraint rather than overblown richness may not have suited all tastes. But if mezzo-soprano Jane Irwin was just a shade lacking in emotion, despite some lovely melodic shaping, it was preferable to turning the visionary quality of Arthur O'Shaughnessy's mediocre words into something mawkish.

With the Hallé Choir adding a valuable contribution, this refreshing interpretation of Elgar's choral ode should make a successful addition to the series of his works that Elder and the Hallé are building up on the orchestra's own recording label.

Comments