Nostalgia, despair and triumph with Cristian Măcelaru

Guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru tonight led the Hallé in an enjoyable evening’s entertainment with a programme which took us on a journey from the film music-esque sounds of Vaughan Williams’s Wasps Overture via the elegiac, lost world of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, closing in the second half with a surefooted performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony.

The Hallé carried their usual polished sound throughout and whilst never spectacular in terms of execution, there was a sense here that in Mark Elder’s absence the orchestra has a capable pair of hands available to lead them as and when required. Commencing the performance was Vaughan Williams’s 1909 work, his first of only a handful of experiments with incidental music. The piece had been composed for a production of Aristophanes’s The Wasps at Trinity College, Cambridge.

In 1908 Vaughan Williams took lessons in Paris with Maurice Ravel where he undertook three months of study around orchestration. Listening to this work, although there are hints of that French maestro’s influence, as the piece develops it becomes archetypal of Vaughan Williams’s own style. An opening buzzing – starting with trills in the woodwind – begins spreading through the orchestra, hovering, darting and prevaricating. The influence of French Impressionism is there in the background, however once the writing moves beyond the opening trills, it all becomes very English-sounding. Under Măcelaru’s assured direction, the piece flowed smoothly throughout, with great care given to lush phrasing in the strings and gentle dynamics adeptly observed when called for.

This is music very much of its time – pastoral and wistful, redolent perhaps of an old England which was swept away in the horrors of World War I, and it is a rumination on this theme which led neatly onto the next item on tonight’s agenda – Elgar’s ever-popular Cello Concerto in E Minor. Regarded as his last significant work, the Concerto quickly became a bedrock of the solo cello repertoire. Elgar created his composition in 1919 amidst the aftermath of the First World War at a time when his music had started to fall out of favour with contemporary audiences. Offering a direct contrast with the sounds of his earlier Violin Concerto (a more melodious and ardent work) the Cello Concerto has a mournful and melancholic character running throughout, likely reflecting the composer’s state of mind during this period.

Assuming the mantle which many believe may never be bettered by Jacqueline du Pré’s famous 1960s recording was young Romanian cellist Andrei Ioniţă, winner of the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition. This exciting young talent appears to have a very bright future ahead of him and here he delivered an outstanding rendition of this deeply emotional work which carried real feeling and captured that essence of loneliness, despair and bewilderment you can imagine Elgar felt at the changing world around him.

Regarded by many as a symphony which was different from anything that had gone before and effectively paved the way for a new era of music, Beethoven’s Third Symphony famously opens with a bang in the form of two loud Eb major chords and wastes no time in establishing the main theme from the off.

Beethoven employs a great use of sudden accents, coupled with offbeat and syncopated rhythms to create tension and urgency and the Hallé were faithful in deploying these as directed in the score. Opting to proceed into the development section without repeating the exposition, Măcelaru effectively maintained a sense of progressive momentum – the stormy, ranging passages at the outset of this section were delivered with real drama.

The mood changes considerably in the second movement (a funeral march in C minor) a section that examines the depths of despair and human tragedy. Not many performances capture the searing nature of this music effectively, although the Hallé came close tonight and this is a true compliment. The more lighthearted, upbeat Scherzo movement offered a temporary shift toward a playful scene (Scherzo being the Italian word for “Jest”.) The French Horns were pleasingly crisp in their delivery during the trio and the movement galloped to a satisfying conclusion.

Plunging headlong into the fourth and final movement – which is effectively a set of variations on a theme – the Hallé reminded us of their superb virtuosity and synchronicity in a movement which calls for a special combination of dexterity and unity. The theme of heroism prevailed throughout the rendition of this great work and the affirmation of loud applause at its conclusion suggested that the warmly received guest conductor will be welcomed back to Manchester again very soon.