The Hallé’s latest Bridgewater Hall concert conducted by Sir Mark Elder turned out to be an unforgettable experience. They started with Ravel’s exquisite Pavane pour une infante défunte, beautifully played with a notable contribution from the orchestra’s principal horn player Laurence Rogers in the piece’s long, beguiling opening melody. Prominent flute and harp added to the Gallic tranquillity of the work, a perfect contrast with the violent music that was to follow.

Sir Mark Elder © Simon Dodd
Sir Mark Elder
© Simon Dodd
In April 2014 Stéphane Rancourt, The Hallé’s principal oboe, gave the world première of Apollinaire’s Bird, an oboe concerto by John Casken. On that occasion Rohan Shotton wrote that it was “one of those new pieces which one immediately wants to hear again”. Almost exactly two years later, the same forces gave a repeat performance; I hope that Rohan Shotton was in the audience. I would add that I now want to hear again and again. It is a powerful, mesmerising and haunting work, surely one of the major concertos of recent years. It is good to see that it was scheduled to be given a further performance the following day in Nottingham.

The concerto was inspired by the poem Un oiseau chante by French poet Apollinaire who wrote it while serving in the trenches in the First World War and who was seriously wounded in 1916. The poem contrasts the song of a bird with the sounds of warfare. The role of the bird is taken by solo oboe, whose sweet line suggesting birdsong contrasts with the violence of the orchestra. Rancourt gave a virtuoso performance of his demanding part which gave him few moments of respite. The piece is structured in two movements and, as the composer explains in his programme note, there are seven eruptive tuttis (of different lengths) for full orchestra without oboe during the whole work. Otherwise the writing was such that the oboe was never overwhelmed by the very large orchestra. The bird continued to sing as if disconnected from what was going on around but still part of the same landscape.

Elgar’s response to the First World War in A Voice in the Wilderness (Une voix dans le désert) was powerful in a very different way. This work is rarely performed (and is another work that one immediately wants to hear again). It was premiered in 1916 in response to the suffering of the Belgians. It is a short piece of a little over ten minutes in a now unfamiliar form. The orchestra accompanies a speaker (a soldier) and a soprano soloist (a Belgian girl whom the soldier hears singing of hope for a better future). The words were by Belgian poet Emile Cammaerts, translated into English by his wife, and given this evening in a revised translation by Geoffrey Owen. The piece was originally given on stage (remarkably as an interlude between Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci!). This evening the soloists were in costume and entered and left the stage as the text required rather than being in front of the orchestra throughout. Jennifer France sang the part of the Belgian girl expressively, bringing out the sorrow and courage of her character. Joshua Ellicott was superb as a (definitely Lancastrian) soldier. His evocation of the desolate scene near the front was very moving. Just before the concert began Sir Mark Elder had been presented with the Elgar Society Medal. This performance demonstrated that Sir Mark is a major Elgarian and convinced us that Une voix dans le désert is a significant work.

The final work in the evening’s concert was Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no. 4 in F minor – not a piece specifically related to war but one of the composer’s most challenging and disturbing works from its opening discord onwards. First performed in 1935, it confounded expectations based on his previous works, but the same could be said of all Vaughan Williams’ symphonies. Is it “about” the political turmoil in Europe at the time, or “just” what the composer felt like writing? There is no answer, or course, but it is a powerful symphony and one that received a very fine performance as the culmination of a richly rewarding concert. Elder and the Hallé negotiated all the symphony’s intricacies with finesse. They made sense of the angry energy of the opening Allegro, and led us through the anguished meanderings of the second movement. They appeared to revel in the distorted dancing of the scherzo and made the most of the remarkable changes of mood in the finale with its contrasting rhythms and broken snatches of melody, the mock-heroic approach to the emphatic last chord.

*****