Three symphonies in one concert might at first appear an unusual piece of programming but in The Hallé’s latest concert with its Music Director Sir Mark Elder we had an inspiring variety of a music – with an unexpected novelty at the end.

Sir Mark Elder conducts The Hallé
© Bill Lam | The Hallé

Haydn’s Symphony no. 64 in A major is not often played and was new to me. It has the curious subtitle of “Tempura mutantur”, a Latin motto, the full version of which means “Times change and we change with them”. In a brief introduction, Elder suggested that this might refer to the sad, questioning second movement but that it was for us as listeners to decide. The second movement was certainly the most extraordinary in the piece. It was mostly for strings only with bassoon support and had the most beautiful mournful melodies which many a Romantic composer from a hundred years later would have loved. Not that the rest of the symphony was without interest – this was the ever-inventive Haydn – but the Largo was stunning.

The Hallé Choir has not sung together in the Bridgewater Hall with an orchestra since February 2020 so their performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms was bound to be special. With some 120 singers spread out behind the orchestra, keeping a distance of 1m apart, they made an impressive sight and an even more stirring sound. They have missed singing and audiences have missed hearing them.

The Hallé and The Hallé Choir
© Bill Lam | The Hallé

The Symphony of Psalms is a unique piece in which Stravinsky sets excerpts from three psalms (in Latin) and creates a very special sound world. The orchestra contains no violins, violas or clarinets but there are large contingents of other woodwind and brass instruments. The space to the left of the conductor was filled by two pianos and a harp. Sometimes the resulting sound was austere, as in the substantial section for winds alone at the beginning of the second movement, but when softness was required the choir provided it. The conclusion of the work is an intense, hypnotic hymn of praise for the full orchestra and choir performing quietly and it was magical. A great welcome back for a fine choir.

After the interval we had something that looked much more familiar – a large standard symphony orchestra playing a familiar 19th-century masterpiece. And yet, after having had our ears adjusted to the very different worlds of Haydn and Stravinsky, Brahms’ Third Symphony gained a new freshness. It is surely one of the most positive, good-humoured pieces in the repertoire and was given a loving performance by the orchestra. The opening was glorious with The Hallé producing a rich, mellow sound in which everything flowed together. Here and there, Elder accentuated little details to make us smile as if affectionately recognising an old friend. In the second movement the spotlight fell onto a tranquil melody from the clarinet, an instrument missing from the first half of the concert. The third movement was very expressive (with a fine horn solo). The finale was more dramatic but conflicts were eventually resolved and we reached a tranquil conclusion.

Sir Mark Elder
© Bill Lam | The Hallé

But that was not all. Sir Mark returned to the platform with a microphone to announce an extra piece. This was the Colin Matthews’ orchestration of Elgar’s song The Prince of Sleep which he had made as a present for the conductor’s 70th birthday but which had been hitherto unperformed. This felt like a special gift from Sir Mark to the audience, a very beautiful little piece which I can see becoming a Hallé favourite.