The Hallé's programmes of late seem to fall into three categories. Firstly, we see the established concert favourites, featuring emerging talents. Second comes well-established performers and conductors, performing either works outside of the performing canon, or one-off works for large forces. And occasionally we see a third category, which this week’s series of concerts falls into, welding together the well-known and the less familiar under the supervision of Sir Mark Elder.

Sir Mark Elder © Benjamin Ealovega
Sir Mark Elder
© Benjamin Ealovega

In his pre-concert audience address, Elder acknowledged the unusual programme combination, recognizing three different composer from different countries writing in different styles in different times. This meant that the current trend of concerts with a distinct thread running through each piece was averted. A classy performance from the orchestra showed that a well-drilled performance is as good a uniting factor as any.

Sir Edward Elgar is a composer who is enjoying a sunny resurgence of late, especially with this orchestra. The Hallé, an orchestra with a history intertwined with the composer, comes fresh from a very successful Elgar Festival; one wonders whether this year’s cycle of Elgar symphonies at the BBC Proms is reflective of a composer whose music is being publicly reappraised and repopularized, as well as coinciding with the celebration his 160th birthday. A committed Elgarian, Elder has become a standard-bearer for his work both in Britain and abroad.

The performance of the Introduction and Allegro for Strings was a treat. A work with an initially negative reception, it is slowly coming back into the public conscience as a real tour de force of string writing. The performance had real vitality and warmth to it, bypassing any degree of pomp and ceremony. Elder’s ability to really get inside Elgar's music is masterful, choosing to avoid the clichéd rituendo into the ‘Welsh’ theme’s reprise, creating a lighter, more buoyant finish. No amount of revision will disguise the fact that Elgar was a traditionalist at heart, and the fugal writing seen here is some of his finest. Elder’s performances always seem to have so much time, a quality that is rare in modern conducting. This helped build a terrific performance from a finely tuned Hallé string section.

Moments of slightly rocky ensemble in the introduction (largely due to a difficult tempo between a fast 4 and a slow 2) hardly detracted from the next piece, a performance by Julian Bliss of Weber’s Second Clarinet Concerto. His reputation as one of the finest (and most versatile) clarinet soloists around is without question. The purity of his tone through the first movement was exquisite, with beautiful dynamic control throughout the register. What was particularly impressive was the subtlety of Bliss’ dynamic contrast, to the point where the fortissimo marked by Weber was more of a hindrance than a help. Through the second movement, Bliss took the role of a bel canto vocalist through aria-like lines and romantic recitatives. The virtuosic finale ended a solid and challenging work often overshadowed by its more famous predecessors. Bliss’ refined and undramatic approach showed a performer fully in control of the music.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony ranks as one of the most well-known and frequently programmed symphonies of all time, making the dual task of retaining the note perfect standards whilst viewing it with fresh eyes all the more challenging. The ‘fate’ motif, the recognizable horn and woodwind melodies and the final triumphant brass lines all make the desire for difference even less accessible. Beauty came in the form of the unfolding of the first movement motifs, seamlessly moving from the opening clarinet idea, through the dotted idea in 6/8 into the final sighing motif. It was a nice change to hear an orchestra and conductor relaxing over dotted quaver to semiquaver material; so often it is played too aggressively in search of precision. Highlights included a mighty brass section (Tchaikovsky 5 is a favourite in brass excerpt books) and two very good contributions from the orchestra’s two bassoon players. It wasn’t perfect; the triplet/duplet cross rhythms in the second movement felt more jagged than they perhaps should. However, the standard of the concert and the musical connection between the players and Elder both seem very strong indeed.