It was here in Manchester, only a stone’s throw from the modern Bridgewater Hall, where Hans Richter gave the first – and by all accounts, highly acclaimed – performance of Elgar’s First Symphony. Quizzed about whether the work had any specific programmatic reference, the great composer wrote “There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future.” According to contemporary accounts, the clamour at the end of the heart achingly beautiful slow movement was so great that the famous maestro was obligated to deliver a prompt encore!
This evening, Sir Mark Elder’s polished and adept Hallé got off to a great start, opting for a well-judged tempo for the opening Andante, giving the music ample time to breathe and transition from an opening dolce treatment before expanding, swelling with pride into the full tutti statement. Alas, as the theme died away, and the lower strings held onto that A flat, the abrupt shift toward the D minor development section did not carry the necessary plunging effect and from that point onwards, the remainder of the movement was disappointingly short of energy and, in some areas, co-ordination. Balance between instrumental groups was not handled sufficiently, creating scenarios where the brass became overpowering, delicate woodwind passages were smothered and string voices became divided and appeared to work against each other.
Happily, order and control were restored in the second movement and Elder ensured military-like precision in the vivacious march, nicely contrasting with the gentle, nostalgic “down by the river” section – this time around, he ensured that the delicate and graceful woodwinds had their voices heard. As the music slowed and we entered the glorious D major Adagio, an ingenious device employed by Elgar appeared, namely to transform the opening theme of the Allegro molto into a much slower melody, altering the key at the same time. The score demands a tremendous amount of careful control and requires delicacy from any conductor to ensure the conclusion of the slow movement is handled as Elgar asked. Elder excelled himself in this regard, with special mention worthy of both the muted trombones and the “farewell” of the closing clarinet passage. A rumbustious blast through the final movement culminated in a magnificent return of the opening motif; the entire orchestra deserving great credit for their playing and the manner in which the symphony was brought to its conclusion.
In the second half, we were treated to some less well known Elgar, consisting of his Froissart Overture, incidental music from Grania and Diarmid – featuring some rather ethereal sounding vocal work from mezzo-soprano Madeleine Shaw – with a powerful conclusion delivered by one of the lesser known Pomp & Circumstance Marches, on this occasion March no. 3 in C minor, very well executed indeed.