Prom 19: Hallé/Mark Elder

Nielsen: Fourth Symphony; Strauss: Macbeth; Britten: Les Illuminations

Royal Albert Hall, 27 July 2007 3.5 stars

Mark Elder

'Music is Life, and, like it, Inextinguishable'. Thus proclaims the foreword to the score of Nielsen's Symphony No. 4, 'The Inextinguishable', which was the feature of the Hallé's Prom at Royal Albert Hall.

Written during the First World War, and a personally unstable period of Nielsen's life, the Fourth Symphony is a dramatic realisation of the prevailing celebration of life through conflict and ethical dilemma. Arguably one of the greatest symphonies of the early-twentieth century, Nielsen's work was greeted with considerable success at its premiere in 1916. Although Mark Elder and the Hallé gave an insightful performance that elucidated the symphony's structural complexities, they did not quite grasp the thrilling commotion of the first movement. The insistent dialogue of winds and percussion, and the ensuing string unison, which plays a paramount role in the discourse of the symphony, needed more urgency. This in turn would have provided greater contrast to the romantic lyricism of the theme on clarinet. Nonetheless, the pastoral Poco allegretto and emotional third movement were sensitively portrayed, underlined with sufficient irony and darkness to form a convincing bridge to the expansive finale. Finally, taut strings, a striking duet on timpani and Elder's effusive conducting produced a climax that thrilled the audience.

Continuing the Shakespeare theme of this year's BBC Proms, the Hallé's concert opened with Richard Strauss' Macbeth - tone poem after Shakespeare. The drama that was lacking in the opening of the Nielsen was present in full voice here. It is clear that Elder, who is in the seventh year of a ten-year commitment as Music Director of the Hallé, has a strong bond with the orchestra, and an otherwise densely-orchestrated musical dialogue received a nuanced and dynamically wide-ranging performance.

Unfortunately, the advertised performance of Britten's Our Hunting Fathers was cancelled at last minute due to soprano Lisa Milne contracting laryngitis. So rare are performances of this early Britten work that it was most disappointing that it was replaced with Britten's settings of Arthur Rimbaud's poems, Les Illuminations. Soprano Joan Rodgers did an admirable job of performing at such short notice, and although there were moments when lack of rehearsal was somewhat evident, she gave an expressive if not so 'illuminating' a reading.

The illumination, according to Mark Elder as he addressed the audience at the end of the concert, was provided by the addition of an encore by the Hallé's Associate Composer Colin Matthews, an orchestration of Debussy's last-known piano piece entitled Les soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon. Although short, the piece was beautifully written and most charmingly executed by the orchestra.

Most illuminating, perhaps, is the consistent high standards of the Manchester-based Hallé and Mark Elder, and a welcome reminder that world-class classical music in England need not, indeed should not, focus solely on London orchestras.

By Úna-Frances Clarke