Composed and performed in 1894, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un fauneproved an instant success on its première. Arguably, the French composer’s most famous work, its score was considered by Pierre Boulez to be the beginning of modern music, observing that “the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music”.
Opening with a mercurial solo flute which seductively rises and falls before languorously curving around an E major arpeggio, we are introduced into Debussy’s impressionist sound world – hypnotic, dream-like. Sir Mark Elder’s direction ensured clear and smooth phrasing, the solo flute gradually accumulating support with harmonic underpinnings of muted horns, strings and harp. The range of orchestral colours on display coupled with the clear, rich sound emanating from the Hallé really served to impress as did the dynamic range from ppp to ff. Elder’s consistently high standards ensured that this was a nicely judged performance of the Prélude, lush strings, piquant woodwind and gentle brass all lending themselves to the impressionist tone palette, led by flautist Katherine Baker.
For the next item, we were required to skip forward to Rachmaninov’s much lauded Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, written at the composer’s villa on the shores of Lake Lucerne in 1934. The theme in question comes from the last of the 24 Caprices for solo violin written by the legendary Italian virtuoso Niccolò Paganini. Such was the level of his demonic dexterity that contemporary audiences of the time contributed to a rumour that he had in fact made a fact with the devil. This well-known theme’s popularity has subsequently lead to other composers – before Rachmaninov and since – to treat the theme to their own variations, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms amongst the most famous of them.
After some deft stage management saw a collection of chairs and music stands trade places with a Steinway grand piano, onto the stage strode Alexander Gavrylyuk, the Ukrainian born Australian pianist. Opening with a bang, Elder set a brisk tempo and maintained a bright and alert style of playing right through the initial set of variations. Special attention was paid by the conductor to normally hidden woodwind passages – he sought to extract the sound in these moments and there was much to be admired in the interplay between piano and orchestra. As we pushed onward through the suite, a devilish march was played with sharp, snappy syncopation – this was a performance with real energy and forward propulsion.
Thunderous chords were delivered with fire and brimstone before the Dies iraechant made appearances in various places like a ghostly apparition. One had to marvel at the sheer agility of Gavrylyuk’s playing – the only minor criticism I could make was that the famous Variation 18 was taken slightly too quickly to allow the full beauty of its’ glorious “upside down” melody to shine through, but this is small beer. Onward we marched into the final section of variations, every player attacking the music with gusto, culminating ultimately in a massive wall of sound, only for Rachmaninov to surprise us all with his sudden, understated ending. In a magnificent encore, Liszt’s wizard-like transcription of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, Gavrylyuk’s pianism was phenomenal, as though the ghost of Liszt himself was in front of us.
For the second half, Stravinsky’s music for Russian fairy-tale The Firebird was performed in its 1910 incarnation. Low foreboding strings opened the work and took us into a whole other world of imagery. The score called for a sizeable orchestra (incorporating a celeste and no less than three harps) and the Hallé gave what was fundamentally a strong and worthy account.
On a night where the Hallé had offered cut price tickets for students, the audience contained a visible contingent of young concert-goers, amongst them perhaps, a number of aspiring musicians. This evening’s concert was not a bad place to commence their musical education. The famous words of Francis Bacon come to mind: “Wonder is the seed of all knowledge.”