The Hallé and its music director Sir Mark Elder are concluding their 2015-16 season with a festival entitled Nature, Life and Love devoted to the music of Antonín Dvořák, a composer whose popularity has never waned amongst listeners, performers or critics. He was a frequent and enthusiastic visitor to England, where several of his major works were premiered, and perhaps as a result he retains a special place in the affection of British audiences. The festival includes both frequently performed pieces (the last three symphonies, the Cello Concerto) and rarities: the final concert is of the oratorio Saint Ludmilla.

The first concert began not with the Hallé Orchestra but with the girls of the Hallé Youth Choir conducted by their director Richard Wilberforce along with pianist Paul Janes in four of Dvořák’s Moravian Duets. These were the works with which the composer’s reputation was established. Originally for two solo singers, they work equally well when sung by a female chorus, and they were very well sung here. They proved to be a delightful opening to the concert and to the festival. In their pre-concert talk Sir Mark Elder and Gerard McBurney spoke much of Dvořák’s gift for melody and his ability to create a melody that once heard is never forgotten. This was certainly the case with the Moravian Duets.

The orchestra then came onto the stage, with conductor Sir Mark Elder and acclaimed Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi for the Piano Concerto in G minor. The earliest of Dvořák’s three concertos – and by far the least performed – this is often considered a “problem” work. Its piano writing is said to be awkward. Those who are well-versed in the technicalities of writing for the piano might recognise this, but in the hands of Piemontesi it came across as a glorious masterpiece. The orchestral introduction suggested the sound world of the composer’s familiar later works in its woodwind solos and there followed some beautiful melodies, especially once the soloist entered. Piemontesi’s playing was in turn assertive and reflective and he dazzled in the dramatic first movement cadenza. The Andante sostenuto second movement was striking for its memorable opening melody, played first by horn and stings and then by the piano, and for the dramatic dialogue between piano and orchestra. The finale was dominated by dance-like themes and took us to an exhilarating conclusion. Piemontesi is a great advocate of this work (which he played in the original version rather than the more frequently heard revision by Vilém Kurz) and his limpid playing banished the thought of any imperfections in the piano part.

In 1891, Dvořák wrote a suite of three symphonic poems or overtures entitled Nature, Life and Love, which gave the title to the Hallé’s festival. Although they were originally intended to be played together, they soon went their separate ways. While the second of the three, Carnival, has become a popular favourite the others are rarely heard. It was, therefore, revelatory to hear the three works together. Sir Mark informed the audience that it had originally been intended to place Carnival last and this is how the concert had been advertised (and the programme notes written). It was only in rehearsal that he realised how effective Dvořák’s original ordering was, and he was surely right. 

In Nature shows Dvořák enjoying a walk in the Czech countryside. Relaxed and unassuming in some ways but rich in the impressions of the sights and sounds of nature, the composer is evidently at the height of his powers. Carnival came second, a more urban celebration contrasting with In Nature with rhythmic energy. At one point the revellers seemed to be getting tired (perhaps too much of that wonderful Czech beer) but they soon came back reinvigorated to the party. And is there any other work in the repertoire with such an exhilarating and audience-pleasing tambourine part? Finally we heard Othello, a powerful translation into music of the final scenes of Shakespeare’s tragedy. This was a dramatic, intense work superbly played by the Hallé which brought the first concert of the festival to a moving conclusion. Although the three pieces work perfectly well on their own, hearing them together gave an added dimension.

This was a fine concert which demonstrated the range of the Dvořák’s music and showed us the treasures to be found in his more rarely heard works. With the Hallé on top form and a dazzling soloist this bodes well for the rest of the festival.