One of the most elusive of the "secrets, codes and enigmas" threading through the Hallé's season is Shostakovich's reliance on "Jingle Bells" in the 10 songs he created for the Fool for a Russian production of King Lear in 1941. Perhaps Shostakovich was thinking of the jester's trademark cap with its tinkling bell, or perhaps he just felt that the tragic situation of "nuncle" would benefit from a touch of festive cheer. Though Mark Elder has recorded these miniatures, this was almost certainly a British concert hall first.
The Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko, a late replacement, gave this cycle of brief songs a polished, characterful interpretation. Each came across as a perfect dramatic entity, whether with a jovial, vamping orchestra or a whimsical fragmentary accompaniment. Their cryptic messages and often hollow humour suggest that this Fool had his wits about him. They were an enticing bonne bouche before Manchester digests Shostakovich's complete symphonies in the new year.
If Shostakovich was a little obsessed with "Jingle Bells" in these songs, Rachmaninov was haunted by the sonorous opening phrase of the Dies Irae funeral chant, which chimes in with his setting of Edgar Allan Poe's fantastic cradle-to-grave poem The Bells. Bells of all shapes, shades and sizes ring out in this gigantic choral symphony, in which the Hallé and London Philharmonic Choirs joined forces to depict the bells of youth and marriage, contrasted by war-like clanging and funereal tolls.
What the chorus lacked in Russian timbre, it tried to make up for in fervour. But the corners of the glittering, icy opening nightride seemed to melt at the choral edges, while the tenor John Daszak compounded the absence of Slavic pungency with his soft-focused gloss. Tatiana Pavlovskaya was enchanting in the operatic rapture of the wedding bells and Petrenko impressively stentorian in the darkly oppressive finale.
Borodin's First Symphony made a tedious end to the first half. Not even Elder seemed very convinced by its symphonic credentials. At least Glinka's Kamarinskaya, which opened the concert, jogged along jovially, if a bit roughly.Reuse content