Tonight Mark Elder’s excellent Hallé orchestra showcased an enjoyable programme of music, encompassing a journey from the Baroque via the Romantic era culminating in the bleak landscape of WWII-era Soviet Russia. The evening started with J.S. Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D minor, originally written for harpsichord in 1734. The excellent Charles Owen started the work with a brisk and energetic pace, offering well-judged balance between his own playing and that of the orchestra. Elder ensured a consistent flow of energy, driving the orchestra forward whilst Owen demonstrated his own adept touches with typically florid Baroque overlays and syncopated rhythms.
The G minor slow movement opened softly, ponderous in nature and with the sense of a search for answers. Great delicacy was on show here along with just the right amount of space for the music to breath. In the final movement, Bach introduced a 12-bar ritornello of muscular counterpoint from which he immediately extracted a propulsive little motif – not dissimilar to the opening idea of the third Brandenburg Concerto. Charles Owen was here given free rein to showcase ever-increasing levels of virtuosity, culminating in a cadenza that leads once again to a restatement of the opening ritornello. In typically neat and tidy fashion, Bach uses this approach to bring the piece to a satisfying close.
The next item on the itinerary was Mendelssohn’s little-heard “Psalm 114”, a liturgical piece which illustrates the story of the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian captivity. The acoustics of the Bridgewater Hall were put to great effect – the rich chorus of voices washing over the audience with crystal clarity and power. Much of Mendelssohn’s music was safely conservative and within the boundaries of contemporary tradition – this work is no exception to that rule. There was a righteous energy about this performance, with strong affirmations and imagery in the setting of the words, particularly “Das meer sah und floh”. First performed in Leipzig on New Year’s Day 1840, this was a polished and assured performance complete with a strong and triumphant ending.
After the interval, we were transported to the dark and sombre scenes of Leningrad in 1943 and with it, Shostakovich’s dramatic Eighth Symphony. It’s hard to believe that this monumental composition was created in the space of just 40 days. Written during the siege of Leningrad and indeed at the turning point of the war (2 February 1943 saw the defeat of the German army at Stalingrad) the expected optimism of the work generated huge anticipation. Whether there is much optimism contained in the symphony’s latter stages is still a topic of some conjecture.
Opening with doom-laden octaves in the lower strong instruments, Shostakovich quickly establishes a key motif which will resurface on further occasions throughout the symphony. Elder and the Hallé immediately created a sonorous wall of sound and set the tone for various imagery of terrible repression and suffering – the harsh dissonances serving to reinforce the seemingly endless death and destruction.
Elder never sought to leap ahead, allowing the assembled war machine to run through its various machinations – the musical language at times brutal, other times cold and detached – guiding the players adeptly through sections requiring increasing tension, Shostakovich cleverly utilising that opening motif at various points. Special mention must go to the cor anglais player who rendered their lengthy solo faithfully. This music at times felt somehow not quite real – as though it were on the verge between life and death.
The second movement suggested business and productivity, perhaps indicative of a city readying itself, trying to get organised in preparation to face a seemingly undefeatable enemy. A martial theme appeared, bringing with it growing anger and resistance. The orchestra died away to an eerie glockenspiel. A driven, motoric theme opened the mechanical third movement – protests or maybe screams from the workers suggested. This is brutal, naked-sounding music. An expertly-performed trombone solo followed soon after, Elder giving it the voice and attention it demanded.
Prior to the start of the symphony, the conductor gave a short talk around the circumstances in which the music was written – this reflects his passion for the Russian master’s music. His interpretations of this music are explorative, questing and always in the spirit of trying to unlock new ideas. He captures very well that unique quality which is omnipresent in Shostakovich’s music of “solitary helplessness”. As the performance progressed toward its end, we were reminded acutely of just how incredibly difficult the times in which the composer lived must have been. Hats off to Elder and the Hallé in an extremely vivid rendition of this Requiem-like symphony.