Exactly 150 years ago to the day, Sir Edward Elgar was born in Worcestershire. The anniversary of arguably Britain's greatest composer is being celebrated by almost every orchestra in the UK. But if the first concert was anything to go by, I doubt any of them will match the HallÚ Orchestra's festive weekend, either in terms of imaginative programming or in the quality of their musical performances.
As Michael Kennedy points out in his typically loving programme note, the HallÚ has a special relationship with Elgar's music. It was the first orchestra to perform the First Symphony and In the South; the composer himself conducted the orchestra many times; and many of the orchestra's conductors have been acclaimed for their Elgar performances, from John Barbirolli to Malcolm Sargent.
The current Music Director, Mark Elder, shares his birthday with Elgar and was sixty today; I cannot think of a more fitting birthday present than their dedicated, technically brilliant and stirring performance during this concert, a tribute to the way he has turned around the orchestra's fortunes in the last seven years.
Also typical of the way he has embraced the artistic life of Manchester is the development of the HallÚ Youth Choir, who performed Elgar's part-song 'O Wild West Wind', Op.53 No.3, under their conductor James Burton, to open the concert. A setting of a poem by Shelley, it is remarkably expressive despite its brevity. Small details of text-painting such as the crescendo during the word 'wind' in the opening line have huge impact. The choir gave a convincing performance of the piece, with strong sopranos and tenors particularly; it is quite extraordinary to open a concert 'cold' with such a difficult, unaccompanied piece.
The first half ended with Elgar's second most familiar piece of music (after 'Land of Hope and Glory', of course), namely the Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85. Composed between 1918 and 1919 and first performed on 27 October 1919, the concerto became a popular showcase for most of the great cellists of the twentieth century, notably Rostropovich and Jacqueline du PrÚ.
Yet the piece is not merely a virtuoso vehicle; it requires a poetic approach from the soloist as well. Initially, I felt that the poetry was lacking in Truls M°rk's performance at this concert. During the first movement he wore a rather blank expression on his face and seemed to lack personality. His intonation was secure, his projection excellent, and the HallÚ provided sympathetic accompaniment. Yet the capacity for this piece to rend the human soul in two was sadly lacking at first.
Things picked up enormously with the bridge passage to the scherzo-like Allegro molto. M°rk revelled in the deep romanticism of the opening solo, articulating the staccato and legato contrasts with the utmost clarity and guiding the listener through the unravelling of the main theme; the technically demanding molto perpetuo aspect was thrilling. Yet it was with the Adagio that M°rk's artistry came to the fore. His communication both with Elder and the orchestra was more lucid, and he became lost in the sheer beauty of Elgar's creation. And the finale was gripping: the orchestra, finally unleashed, provided a lush background to M°rk's fluid solo line.
After the interval came Elgar's Second Sympony - and with it, one of the most thrilling symphonic performances I have heard during the last year. Evidently well rehearsed, the HallÚ's exemplary performance under Elder's alert but unostentatious direction was a model of professionalism and artistry.
The huge joyous opening for all the instruments playing together was mind-blowing. Elder's arrangement of the players on the platform is ideal for revealing the composer's huge orchestral palette: double basses lined up high at the back project well into the audience, while the division of the violins on either side of the platform allows contrasting lines in contrapuntal passages to be heard with wondrous clarity.
There were almost too many highlights even in the first movement to be able to list them all: the cellos in their highest register excelled in their plaintive tune; ghostly flutes screaming high stood out against the romantic warmth of the first subject; the two harps plucked detached notes against the smooth woodwinds; and the brass section showed itself to be second to none in its frequent exciting fanfares. The genius of the piece is its facility to make the listener want excitement and then to deliver it: ascending scales and spine-tingling crescendos generate anticipation and dawn always comes, usually with a blaze of trumpets.
Solemnity pervades the slow movement, and the HallÚ did full justice to Elgar's broad textural imagination. Gloom-ridden timpani rolls punctuated the violins' theme, while the oboe solo was played with exquisite tone and a sense of poignancy. The striking aspect of the performance was how much nuance of tempo, dynamic and phrasing the HallÚ managed to effect, without flamboyant gestures from the conductor. Similarly effective was the creation of intimacy when the strings played simple block harmonies in the manner of a classical-period string quartet.
The percussion section dominated the third movement, with tambourines, cymbals and bass drum all combining to evoke a Tennysonian nightmare. And the finale was tremendous, moving at a hectic pace for much of the time but calming down into a quiet, noble ending.
With the orchestra and its principal conductor on such brilliant form they have few rivals, either nationally or on the world's stage.