How to round off a concert season? It’s a dilemma faced by concert planners the world over, but The Hallé’s concert in Sheffield City Hall resolved it triumphantly. Substantial local involvement came via the massed ranks of the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus and the Leeds Festival Chorus. Add to that a young conductor just making his name, Finnegan Downie Dear, unanimous winner of the most recent Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2020, leading these assembled forces in what is essentially a young man’s work – Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast – and the evening ended with a bang. 

Finnegan Downie Dear
© Frank Bloedhorn

Belshazzar's Feast is about as over the top as you can get while still remaining within the bounds of reasonably good taste. It felt vital, dynamic, rhythmically alive. The baritone soloist, Benedict Nelson, didn’t always appear comfortable in his interjections, but played his role with a theatrical flourish: we didn’t just hear about how there “came forth fingers of a man’s hand”, but Nelson acted it out for us. At the brassy, jazzy conclusion the audience foot-stamped their appreciation – a disappointingly small crowd, not a lot larger than the forces on stage, but making up for it in volume.

If Walton’s piece sent people out from the concert exhilarated, then the Suite from Thomas Adès’ ballet Inferno in the first half was a revelation. The Sheffield crowd is an essentially conservative one, approaching new works with the suspicion of a cautious eater being offered an unfamiliar pizza topping, but it embraced this composition with startling enthusiasm. This was mostly evident in the premature spontaneous applause (to be fair, it does sound rather like an ending!) that greeted the section depicting the thieves in Dante’s epic poem, in which Adès plays raucously with the already crazily unbuttoned Grand galop chromatique of Liszt. The spectre (if that’s the right word) of Liszt hovers over this composition. As Adès said before its world premiere in Los Angeles, “Liszt really owns hell and the demoniacal…  so the music in Inferno moves from absolutely 100% me, to 100% Liszt and every gradation in between.” 

Before the performance, Downie Dear addressed the audience, as if to reassure them that there was nothing to be afraid of. He needn’t have worried. The Hallé responded to his prompting with virtuoso skill, from the way it handled Adès’ treatment of fragments from Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz no. 1 at the start, through the haunting echoes of La lugubre gondola as Charon rows dead souls across the Styx, via the delicate dance of the Pavan of the Souls in Limbo and, finally, by way of that galumphing rendering of the Grand galop chromatique, to the desolation of the ending, depicting Satan trapped eternally in a frozen lake. It’s rare to hear a new work greeted with such warmth, and orchestra and conductor – and of course Adès himself – emerged with immense credit.

The opening work on the bill was, in the context of the programme as a whole, somewhat overshadowed. Nevertheless, the Four Sea Interludes from Britten's Peter Grimes provided what sounded like a perfectly serviceable introduction to the evening. If I appear a little cautious here, it’s because, until evasive action was taken after the Britten, my allocated seat offered a sound balance that was 80% timpani, 20% rest of the orchestra. The Storm section was certainly stormy… in a timp-heavy sort of way!