While the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen were coming to the conclusion of their high-profile complete Sibelius symphony cycle at the Barbican, the Hallé's alternative (and by no means less distinguished) celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the composer's death was beginning in Manchester under Mark Elder.
The Third and First Symphonies brought each half of the concert to a close while Finnish bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo was the soloist for some of Sibelius' lesser-known vocal works.
Uusitalo is fast becoming an important figure on the international operatic circuit, with forthcoming appearances including a new Ring Cycle in Vienna and his Covent Garden debut, and the Hallé's decision to hire him for this concert wasn't merely by virtue of his nationality: his incredibly powerful yet clear voice and imposing personality made for an impressive performance and suggest that he's ideal Wotan material.
Giving the orchestra's Sibelius concert season its title, the cantata Tulen synty ('The Origin of Fire'), Op. 32, opened the performance with a boldness reminiscent of his Kullervo symphony. The bass soloists has the first four stanzas of the text, which is derived from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, then the male choir takes over for the rest of the twelve minute piece. Uusitalo was well projected throughout and sang with conviction, as did the gentlemen of the Hallé Choir and the RNCM Chorus. Yet the evocative orchestral introduction - clarinet and oboe over a yearning theme passed between the first and second violins - soon gives way to a declamatory style which persists until the close, and to me even Mark Elder's committed direction of the piece couldn't raise it above the level of insipid nationalistic propaganda.
To go straight from the full, exciting orchestration of the cantata to the pared-down instrumentation of the Third Symphony was inevitably a little anti-climactic. Elder and the Hallé offered a refined performance that tapped into the neo-classicism and concision of expression which the composer was aiming for. The folk rhythms in the strings at the start of the first movement were lively, and were neatly contrasted by the flutes' short interjections. The huge virtue of the playing was its unity: at the dramatic climaxes, the strings in particular moved as one, and the plagal cadence in the brass at the end was rousing. Subtlety was the name of the game in the second movement, where the clarinet (again excellent) and other woodwinds led the melody over a gentle dance rhythm played nimbly by the strings. Elder's dynamics were generally muted, no doubt in appreciation of the idea that the piece represents Sibelius' fascination with Busoni's 'youthful classicism'. Similarly, the finale was calm and pastoral rather than tense in mood, but Elder made the most of the horn chorale at its height and delivered the famous G-E-C closing motive with a sense of apotheosis.
Once more, with the three songs which opened the second half of the concert I felt that the performance was superior to the composition. Uusitalo performed all three from memory and could hardly have sung them with more conviction of their value, but there just isn't the same quality in these pieces as there is in Sibelius' great symphonic works. The depiction of a spider's web with harp arpeggiation in 'Fool's Song of the Spider' was rendered magical here by the (unnamed) player, but again I found the declamatory style rather distancing. It's to Elder's credit that the bond between singer and orchestra was so strong because they managed to effect all kinds of tempo changes in spite of the composer's tendency to double the vocal line in the orchestra. 'To Evening' is based on variations of a single phrase and is (surely inevitably) highly repetitive; Uusitalo initially suffered some intonation problems but ironed them out as the dynamic grew. The highlight was unquestionably 'Was it a Dream?', a short poetical song which uses chromatic harmonies to colour the text. Uusitalo's performance was full of contrasts and he conveyed the vocal line with such ardent tone that it was a pleasure to hear it performed again as an encore.
The highlight of the concert was unquestionably the First Symphony, Op. 39, in which orchestra and conductor were at their riveting best. In the first few minutes of the symphony alone the timpani roll, clarinet solo, spiky violin theme and brass fanfare demonstrated the Hallé's rich talents. The brass players in this orchestra are surely second to none, and some of the accelerandi which Elder managed to achieve really did function as the injections of pressure which Sibelius hoped for. The Tchaikovskian theme of the second movement set the mood for a deeply yearning performance, while the manic Scherzo and broad canvas of emotions in the finale topped off the concert magnificently.
Without doubt, the hero of the concert was Mark Elder, whose firm grasp of the scores he conducts and clear direction (mercifully lacking in false gestures) are a lesson in how a conductor can and should operate. Long may he continue to work with this orchestra.