Young British conductor Alpesh Chauhan has garnered an impressive reputation in less than a decade working both in the opera house and on the concert platform. Opening the new concert season in Sheffield City Hall with Thomas Adès’ own arrangement for full orchestra of three movements from his opera, Powder Her Face, Chauhan and the Hallé gave a performance which vividly highlighted the work’s mixture of sleaze and sophistication. 

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Alpesh Chauhan conducts the Hallé
© Alex Burns | The Hallé

Adès has just begun a two-year tenure as the Hallé’s Artist-in-Residence, and on the basis of this display the orchestra really enjoys exploring the composer’s characteristic wit and irony.  Special praise should go to the woozy clarinet playing in the Overture and to the way orchestra and conductor handled the gradual disintegration of the Finale’s foxtrot. 

Steven Osborne is a familiar figure on Sheffield’s stages, and his performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in F major, after an initial debate with the orchestra’s wind section about the pacing of the opening exchanges, confirmed what was already known: that he has a safe pair of hands, tackling the outer movements’ sparkling, if rather brittle, scales and arpeggios with aplomb. 

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Alpesh Chauhan conducts the Hallé in Bridgewater Hall
© Alex Burns | The Hallé

However, though Shostakovich himself seems not to have rated the work (“no redeeming artistic merits,” he told the composer Edison Denisov), audiences have definitely disagreed, and the tenderness and almost childlike simplicity of the slow movement showed clearly why that is the case. Osborne refused to wallow in the wistful reverie here, and hushed muted strings provided a backdrop of rare intimacy. After the concerto’s helter-skelter finale, Osborne unveiled an encore that might have chimed with Shostakovich’s own love of jazz; his reinterpretation of Bill Evans’ rendition of “I loves you, Porgy” held the audience spellbound.

Like Shostakovich about his concerto, Tchaikovsky at one point had little good to say about his then recently completed Fifth Symphony. Responding to fellow composer Sergei Taneyev’s critical remarks, Tchaikovsky scrawled “Awful muck” across the score, before tearing it in half and throwing it across the room. Once more audiences have tended to disagree.

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The Hallé brass
© Alex Burns | The Hallé

However the challenge with Tchaikovsky’s music, and particularly with this symphony, is to keep its headstrong, occasionally mildly hysterical tendencies in check, so as to fashion a cohesive whole from the work rather than just a series of emotional peaks and troughs. Clearly different listeners will respond in different ways here, and it is certainly true that in a live performance one can tolerate an amount of self-indulgence that might grate on repeated listening at home. For me, Chauhan’s handling of the score was ultimately rather self-defeating. There were many instances of rapid accelerandos leading to the sudden slamming on of the brakes, particularly evident in the twin climaxes of the slow movement. The slightly more emotionally distant third movement Valse came off best, but the finale (always problematical structurally) simply felt noisy and brash, and the coda even less convincing than usual. The Hallé played with resolution and commitment, one or two strangulated horn fanfares excepted, but I’m sure that on other occasions they will exert less effort for considerably greater reward. 

***11