The solo violin repertoire is rich; from Bach to Bartók and beyond, the instrument has an enviable catalogue of impressive works. Prokofiev’s principal contribution to the solo violinist’s career consists of two sonatas (one also favoured amongst flautists), and two concerti. However, in 1947, Prokofiev was commissioned to write a piece for 20 or 30 talented student violinists playing in unison. The resulting Sonata for unison violins, Op. 115, was too difficult and lay untouched for another twelve years until it received its première in a solo performance by American virtuoso Ruggiero Ricci in Moscow, 1959. Rarely heard, Ricci’s 1960 Vienna recording is worth investigation. Tonight however, the Hallé presented the work in its original version, and was played by the first violins. Full of vigour and vitality, the entirely unanimous players gave a stirring performance of unanimous conviction – intonation, dexterity, balance and an impressive dynamic assurance all combined to serve both the music and musicians in equal measure. The display of technical finesse was enthusiastically received by the audience and the player’s Hallé colleagues who sat in the auditorium.

Mark Elder © Sheila Rock
Mark Elder
© Sheila Rock

To follow Prokofiev’s lone strings, a further work of both augmented and reduced forces: Stravinsky’s magnificently proportioned Symphony of Psalms. Composed in 1930 and dedicated to the Boston Symphony Orchestra on their 50th anniversary, Stravinsky set three psalm texts in response to his own orthodox devotion. Violinists vacated the platform to make way for the Hallé cellos and basses that form the reduced string section of Stravinsky’s choral masterpiece, which also includes augmented wind and brass sections. The collective forces succeeded in an expertly polished performance: choral balance, including the Hallé’s excellent and enviably capable Youth Choir, is presently at a premium under the directorship of Frances Cook (Hallé Choir) and Richard Wilberforce (Hallé Youth Choir). The orchestra tackled fiendishly tricky passages with aplomb, incorporating astonishing articulation and keen attention to detail.

The Hallé is at the head of many inspiring projects for children, students, and young professionals. Aside from their extraordinarily popular educational outreach projects in schools (stressing music as an important and invaluable part of education), the orchestra provides first-rate opportunities for up-and-coming young artists – as exemplified in their Hallé/RNCM String Leadership Programme and the employment of an assistant conductor to Sir Mark Elder. Tonight heralded the new arrival of the latest incumbent: Jamie Philips. A 21-year-old graduate of the RNCM/Manchester University Joint Programme, Philips succeeds Andrew Gourlay as Sir Mark’s Assistant Conductor and Director of the Hallé Youth Orchestra. Following an intense introduction from Elder, Philips made his Hallé debut with Dvořák’s Scherzo capriccioso, Op.66. An old lollipop, doubtlessly familiar to the orchestra, it served as the perfect introduction between the orchestra and conductor, who led them in a well rehearsed reading. In lilting, waltzing strings, florid woodwind and pompous brass, Philips enthusiastically drew from the orchestra a well paced, if sometimes a little underbalanced performance. The audience warmly applauded his debut.

To close the evening, Elder returned to the platform with a full complement of orchestra players and the extra brass necessary for Leoš Janáček’s familiar and epic Sinfonietta. Composed in the spring of 1926 (the same year as his opera The Makropulos Case, also in Manchester this week in a super performance by Opera North) the piece has strong overtones of political liberation – on investigation a subject close to Janáček’s heart and an important influence on his music. The chorus now absent from their stalls, the extra brass lined the front row facing out towards the audience so that in the opening bars we were given the full thrust of their rich, warm, well-rounded tones with forceful timpani interjection. A nightmare tour de force of technical challenges for each orchestral section, the players gave an inspired performance. Extraordinary woodwind facility from the flutes and clarinets was especially impressive in passages requiring unforgiving accuracy. The viola section (who had had something of an easy ride this evening, having only played in the previous Dvořák) displayed an enviable ability in this taxing repertoire. At full tilt, the brass section (incorporating the 13 strong off-stage players), shook the hall’s foundations in a powerful blast of well-disciplined skill. Following the final bars, the audience matched the orchestral forte in an eruption of enthusiastic applause.

It is possible that familiar repertoire like this evening’s programme occasionally needs a fresh perspective to give it life, and Elder’s guiding hand achieved a performance of well seasoned experience, control and balance, amounting to a concert as refreshing as a sweet ginger beer. Given tonight’s well crafted Janáček performance, I look forward to the Hallé’s forthcoming concert including Taras Bulba, and Britten’s rarely performed Prince of the Pagodas suite.