Thursday evening’s concert by the Hallé was conducted by the orchestra’s former Associate Conductor Jamie Phillips. To begin the programme we had a superb performance of Mozart’s Symphony no. 31 in D major, written during the 22 year old composer’s stay in Paris, hence its nickname of the “Paris” Symphony. Despite his mother’s serious illness at the time, it is one of Mozart’s sunniest pieces, especially in the exuberant first movement in which he made the most of the French audience’s liking for a premier coup d’archet – a series of unison chords followed by a fast upward flourish. In writing it doesn’t sound much but Mozart turned it into a significant feature and Phillips ensured that it was played with verve and style. The slow second movement was lilting and showed off in particular the Hallé’s string playing. The finale had suggestions of something weightier but darker undercurrents were always kept in check. It is no surprise that this symphony was successful from the start and remained one of the composer’s favourites. Phiilips shaped this performance with clear affection, giving the impression that he was telling the audience a new story and eliciting fine performances from his players.

Jamie Phillips © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Jamie Phillips
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

In April 2016 I enthusiastically reviewed the Hallé’s performance of Apollinaire’s Bird, an oboe concerto by John Casken, and so was looking forward to the world premiere of Madonna of Silence, his new work for trombone and orchestra. I was not disappointed. Casken called his piece “a drama for trombone and orchestra” rather than a concerto. The title refers to a remarkable drawing by Michelangelo known as The Holy Family (The Madonna of Silence) which was reproduced in the programme booklet. This is an unconventional depiction of Mary, Joseph and Jesus and a mysterious fourth figure who may be John the Baptist or Hercules and who has his finger on his lips as if demanding silence.

The composer explains that the structure of the work moves from one feature of the drawing to another and that “both soloist and orchestra are equally engaged in the unfolding drama of a scene brimming with unease and premonitions”. I had difficulty relating the music to the drawing, but it was a very atmospheric and intriguing work. The soloist was the Hallé’s Principal Trombone, Katy Jones, for whom the piece was written. She emerged from the orchestra, sometimes contrasting with what they were playing but more often leading them or representing one of the figures in the drawing, and often she played very sweetly and lyrically. There were loud and strident moments in the piece but the overall impression was of reflection and contemplation. Particularly striking were the quiet opening in which the soloist’s lyrical contributions drew us into the sound world of this piece and further gentle passages toward the end. The orchestra was a large one but used delicately and with restraint. One noteworthy effect was the “shh” sounds that the orchestra made at a number of points though the piece.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 5 in B flat major, written toward the end of the Second World War and first performed in January 1945 when victory over the Nazis seemed assured. Prokofiev said that it expressed “the greatness of the human spirit” and would be “a song to free and happy people”. How far statements such as these can be taken at face value is disputed, but it is an overwhelmingly positive and celebratory symphony, notwithstanding many quirky and ironic elements.

Prokofiev uses a huge orchestra and the Bridgewater Hall stage was full. The balance can be tricky but under Phillips’ direction the melodies emerged successfully from the orchestra in the grand first movement. Prokofiev’s melodic invention was to the fore in this symphony and his technique of contrasting a graceful tune with a grotesque one as if to undermine the first added to its peculiar character, as did some bizarre orchestral effects such as the combination of pizzicato strings with trumpets in the second movement. Sometimes one was reminded of Prokofiev’s ballet music – some of the material for the second movement was originally intended for Romeo and Juliet – and even of film music. Sometimes an apparently innocuous theme would lead to a mighty climax. It was a great showpiece for the virtuosity of the Hallé’s performers and a suitably triumphant conclusion to a fine concert.