This intriguing programme by The Hallé, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, united three French composers of uniquely independent musical voices around the dark Nordic heart of Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor at its core. Much like discovering an unexpectedly brilliant combination of familiar but unintuitive ingredients in a single dish, this was a concert with much to admire in its conception and assembly.

Viktoria Mullova © heikefischer-fotografie.de
Viktoria Mullova
© heikefischer-fotografie.de

The centrepiece of the evening, before the interval, was Sibelius' much loved concerto for violin, written in the grips of the composer's darkest struggles with alcoholism. Russian violinist Viktoria Mullova as soloist played with focussed, taut sound, without any threat of dramatics but with an unerring ability to find the richest sense of expression in her playing. There was passion aplenty when called for, but the most memorable moments came when orchestra and soloist dropped their voices to the softest whisper, the music unfolding with the delicate ebb and flow of soft breathing. The end of the slow movement was arrestingly still, before returning to an air of tightly-wound tension in the finale. Here the crisp articulation of the opening rhythmic figure seemed to pervade the whole movement, propelling its dance along relentlessly.

Prior to the concerto was one of the lesser-heard Berlioz overtures, several of which have appeared in the season so far alongside The Damnation of Faust last month. Les Francs-Juges, though now merely surviving as a concert overture, was originally meant to have been a grand opera on themes of German political struggles in the middle ages. The March to the Scaffold, of Symphonie Fantastique fame, was to be part of that opera, the rest of which was mostly destroyed or recycled. Though written at the tender age of 22, having just completed his medical degree and entered the conservatoire, the music bears many hallmarks of the composer's unique style. It was pleasing to see an ophicleide in addition to tuba, giving extra clout to the ominous unison theme which defines the piece (much like the King Lear overture). For their large number and wide distribution across the stage, the brass played with remarkably crisp staccato articulation in this theme. Similarly dramatic was the sense of ensemble in melodies being tossed between opposed first and second violins, and the lively string fugue. It was enormous fun, and there were smiles all round after the overture's breathless dash to the finish.

The post-interval music was a world away stylistically, beginning at midnight on the Seine for Debussy's Nocturnes of 1897-99. This scene, Nuages, was wonderfully fluid in its softly handled legato, though even the pizzicato effects rippling between reinforced string sections seemed to flow without any sense of solidity. The cor anglais solo was as spacious and unhurried as the overhead clouds which the composer described in relation to this music. The second movement, painting a torchlit parade through the Bois de Boulogne, was rollicking fun as the procession approached, romped past and then receded into the distance. Rarely can three trumpets have played quite so admirably quietly, their muted sounds creating a convincing sense of distance. The finale, leaving Paris for the sea, saw evocative, wordless contributions from fifty or so upper voices of the Hallé Choir and Hallé Youth Choir, who had sat patiently in the choir stalls through the first half. Once again without any threat of a hard edge in earshot, the music here was again as fluid as could be wished for. The chorus blended seamlessly into the orchestra texture, painting an attractive picture of a still sea.

Ravel's La Valse was an entertaining finish to the programme. With its large rhythm section conjuring images of the Prokofiev ballets, the waltz had an infectious bounce in its tread, whirling through paragraphs with compelling lilt. Tricky woodwind and trumpet figures were easily realised within the waltz pulse, building to a heady climax which made one wish this work could share programming popularity with the same composer's Boléro. It was an entertaining end to a brilliantly conceived programme, and with microphones out but no mention of a radio broadcast, the prospect of hearing any of this music on disc is an enticing one.

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