The Hallé’s latest concert was a novel presentation of mostly familiar music. Ben Palmer and the orchestra took Beethoven’s "Pastoral" Symphony, detached the first two movements and added other pieces, turning it into a “journey through a spring day in the country”. This might just have been a gimmick if it had not been for the imaginative choice of works and the high quality of the performances. It was as if the atmosphere of the symphony – “more an expression of feeling than a painting”, according to Beethoven – had been extended to encompass other times and landscapes, and the audience was given a longer stay in the countryside.

Kristīne Balanas
© Alex Burns

We started with the first movement of the Pastoral, and happy feelings on arrival in the countryside were quickly awakened. The blend of lyrical strings and characterful wind solos immediately evoked a pleasant time in natural surroundings. Palmer didn’t rush matters; it was as if we had left the city, whether Vienna or Manchester, and were now able to relax and enjoy ourselves.

The next piece was the only unfamiliar one on the programme. Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps was originally for piano trio. The composer created a version for a huge orchestra, but Palmer has made a masterly new orchestration for the forces required for the rest of the evening’s concert. There is no particular narrative to the piece; to me it conjured up a misty landscape, with a certain French elegance and some threatening undertones.

We then returned to Beethoven with his Scene by the brook, made all the fresher by the contrast with what had just gone before. There was some beautiful playing, and the woodwind imitations of birds were delightful. More birdsong followed when violinist Kristīne Balanas joined the orchestra for a stunning performance of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. She evoked the sound of the lark and a hot, sunny day in England, her exquisite sounds soaring above the orchestra and concluding with a long magical solo. She received an enthusiastic response for her Manchester debut.

After the interval we had more Vaughan Williams: his overture to The Wasps. The wasps in question may be the lawyers of Aristophanes’ comedy, but the buzzing of the opening bars left no doubt that the insects were flying around and causing a nuisance (surely in late summer rather than spring?). The following folk dance placed us firmly in the English countryside.

Ben Palmer
© Alex Burns

Balanas returned to join a much smaller orchestra to give a spirited performance of Spring from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Her rapport with the orchestra was very much in evidence, not least in her duetting with the leader of the orchestra in the first movement and her expressive playing in the second. It was good to hear a smaller-scale Baroque piece in the context of an orchestral concert.

Finally we returned to the final three movements of the Pastoral, which are played without a break. Here Palmer captured the good fun of the peasants’ merrymaking, with jokey bassoon contributions. The ensuing thunderstorm was ferocious and dramatic. The finale brought us to a glorious conclusion and reconnected us with the unalloyed happiness of the opening. The pointing of woodwind solos and the smooth playing of the stings had been characterised this fine performance of the symphony and the concert as a whole. The chemistry between conductor and orchestra was palpable.

I was initially a little sceptical about the concept of this concert. By the end I was convinced. It had illuminated some popular favourites and turned out to be a special event.

****1