The presence of star Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti and long-standing music director Sir Mark Elder at the Hallé’s latest concert at Bridgewater Hall attracted a large audience. They were not daunted by the fact that the soloist was not playing one of the popular concertos that regularly appear on concert programmes, but the relatively unknown Second Violin Concerto by Karol Szymanowski, and they were richly rewarded.

Nicola Benedetti and the Hallé
© Alex Burns | The Hallé

Szymanowski’s concerto has a remarkably mysterious, dreamy opening after which the mood changes frequently. The composer had been much affected by the folk music he had heard in the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland and his concerto has an outdoor feel to it. There are often allusions to folk music, without any actual folk tunes being quoted, and an impressionistic air. Benedetti dominated proceedings with very expressive playing. In writing this concerto (and other works) Szymanowski was helped by his violinist friend Paweł Kochański, to whom it is dedicated. Kochański wrote the substantial cadenza in which Benedetti demonstrated her virtuosity. 

For the rest of the concerto the relationship between soloist and orchestra was distinctive. Benedetti played lyrical episodes with the orchestra providing a background and she burst out with suggestions of folk-style fiddle playing. Sometimes she and the orchestra seemed to be taking the same material and doing different things with it. We were often surprised by the directions in which the concerto took us and the ending was unexpectedly decisive. Benedetti’s committed and often beautiful playing will have gained this work many new enthusiasts. I am looking forward to hearing it again.

The concert began with Szymanowski’s near-contemporary Ottorino Respighi, although The Fountains of Rome was composed nearly two decades earlier. Respighi’s colourful musical depictions of four Roman fountains from dawn to dusk were written for a huge orchestra and gave all the Hallé players their chance to shine, an opportunity which they evidently relished. In the central Triton Fountain in the Morning and Trevi Fountain at Noon, the mythological scenes on the fountains are translated into sparkling, exuberant music. And yet, although we are in a major city, there is a rural feel to much of the work, especially in its outer movements. The Hallé woodwinds in particular conjured up these bucolic scenes. In the composer’s day the Valle Giulia fountain was in a pastoral landscape where cattle came to drink. In the final Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset we heard birds singing as well as church bells ringing and the water splashing until night fell and the music faded into silence.

Sir Mark Elder conducts the Hallé
© Alex Burns | The Hallé

The second half of the concert consisted of Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 in D major which is often considered his most lyrical and easy-going, but it has darker undertones as well. Elder and the orchestra played it with a smaller body of strings than is often the case. As a result, every detail could be heard even if some of the grandeur was lost. It was a measured performance, Elder in no hurry, allowing the symphony to reveal its secrets in a leisurely manner. The second movement felt very sad; the third cheerful but with some dark clouds which were only dispelled in the Finale. The energetic con spirito start to that movement came as a surprise after what had preceded it, only to become more subdued in the centre until the music became more excitable, taking us to a resolute conclusion.