It is already Sir Mark Elder's 19th year as music director of the Hallé. If numbers mean little, the performance of the evening evinced that their partnership is ageing like fine wine, yet also not wanting in fierceness when required.

Sir Mark Elder © Russell Hart
Sir Mark Elder
© Russell Hart

A seasoned Wagnerian, Elder offered plenty of wisdom as much as beauty in the opening piece of the evening, the overture to Tannhäuser. In his balanced, lyrical, and unfussy account of a work that can often be overpowering in its weight, the general sense of poise may have been unexpected. Noticeable was how often the timpani and brass section conceded to the woodwinds, and the manner the strings were kept light and streamlined. Certainly, had this been part of a production of the entire opera, the following Venusberg Bacchanal and its psychosexual frenzy would have required an interpretational masterstroke to enable a smooth transition.

What followed instead was the fairytale-like world of Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue. Given the lightness Elder and the Hallé exulted in in the Wagner, they were indeed in the right zone in formulating Debussy’s sensual languor. Katherine Baker’s flute had a touch of brazen songfulness, yet equally impressive were how the Hallé Choir and the Hallé Youth Choir projected a firm presence while maintaining a transparent tone as to allow all instruments discernible. The husky contours of Anna Stéphany's mezzo was both memorable and effective, yet special applause had to be reserved for Sophie Bevan, who replaced the indisposed Sabine Devieilhe at the last minute. Here’s Bevan’s operatic credentials were in full bloom, as her supple vibrato invited an expressive quality to the ethereal setting of Debussy’s cantata.

A newfound rhythmic urgency opened Stravinsky’s The Song of the Nightingale. Through the Chinese and funeral marches, Elder’s sense of texture was immaculate, as every instrumental moment in this lean score was carved out with expressive detail. Yet for the sense of occasion that Elder conjured, the real winners were the orchestra especially the woodwinds, who demonstrated spontaneity, character and virtuosity alike.

Preceding the Firebird were presented choral renditions of two Russian folk songs quoted in the ballet. The melodies, which appear in crucial moments of the ballet (The Princesses’ Khorovod and the Finale), are from Stravinsky’s teacher Rimsky-Korsakov’s 100 Russian Folk Songs. It was a fine programming decision, elucidating the Russian spirit underlying of a work Diaghilev called “the first Russian ballet.”

In approaching the Firebird itself – performed in the cut and re-orchestrated 1945 suite – Elder demonstrated sensitivity and imagination, patiently building up the adventurous colours of the score. The lilting Scherzo had vibrancy, and the Princesses’ Khorovod charm. From the  Infernal Dance, it was Elder the dramatist that took the reins. While the dance was incisive and transparent with prominent woodwinds and the Berceuse unusually suspenseful and still, Elder was to wait until the final moments of the Finale in letting his warhorses loose. It was a moment to relish for those who might have felt throughout the evening that the brass and timpani had more physicality to give, as their unadulterated volume was rousing in triumph.

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