John Adams’s Harmonium accompanied the third instalment in the Hallé Beethoven cycle to form an exciting programme of music united by being very radical in its time.

© Sheila Rock
© Sheila Rock

Harmonium, composed in 1980, is a choral triptych of ‘poems of transcendental vision,’ as the composer writes, underpinned by minimalism inspired by the likes of Reich and Glass. The Hallé were joined by The Hallé Choir and members of the University of Manchester Chorus. The first poem, John Donne’s Negative Love opens with quietly pulsing voices and woodwind, with occasional rhythmical interjections and percussive swells. The rocking orchestral accompaniment was tightly controlled and precise, but fine attention to the longer line from Sir Mark Elder gave the chorus a firm foundation for their excellent singing. Particularly good were the percussion section on marimba and vibraphone, with good shows of four-mallet technique. Elder drew huge power when required throughout the piece but also maintained subtlety and reserve, notably in the stillness of the second movement, a setting of Emily Dickinson’s Because I Could Not Stop for Death. Here the Hallé Choir sang with great delicacy and fine tone, combined with the prolonged withholding of resolution to give a strong impression of the poet’s allusions to the timelessness of the ‘Fields of gazing grain’. Following this line, a quartet of percussionists congregated beneath a long line of bells, which gently sounded as though played by a breeze, before the pianissimo re-entry of the chorus on ‘Since then ‘tis centuries’. A violent orchestral crescendo, lead by tuba, bass trombone and horns, announced the third poem, Wild Nights, also by Dickinson. Furious string and trombone passages created an air of ecstatic excitement, dotted by stellar glockenspiel effects, for the grand proclamations of the chorus. At other times, Adams used the voice as an instrument of minimalism, to which the singers obligingly responded with ethereal sound effects. When the vast forces finally reached a major chord resolution at the pianissimo close to the piece, the effect was magical, and very well received.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Eroica, was, at the time of composition, even more radical than Harmonium, breaking all conventions of scale and scope to create a tribute ‘to the memory of a great man’ (following Napoleon’s self-declaration as Emperor which enraged Beethoven). The opening chords were struck boldly and were followed by a joyful realisation of the principal theme from the reinforced horn section, which was impressive throughout; particularly in the third and fourth movements, where they led with vivacity and unsentimental grandeur. The strings were rich and precise, maintaining clarity and tone through the fast semiquavers between phrases, and giving a large, full sound elsewhere, aided by the splitting of the violins, cellos and basses either side of the central violas. Elder moulded phrases and dynamics superbly and gave an original reading whilst avoiding extremes of tempo. He was supported by excellent woodwind playing, notably from the principal oboist in the funereal Adagio and playful scherzo. The finale’s early pizzicato passage was excellent, hinting at the variations to follow which benefited from fine playing from all sections of the orchestra and good leadership from Elder. When the coda emerged, the horns played with great aplomb, making for a grand close to the evening.