After a long summer pause, Bridgewater Hall is filled with music again. As is traditional, the Hallé’s new season began with a relatively popular programme conducted by music director Sir Mark Elder and it attracted a pleasingly large audience.

Benjamin Grosvenor © Operaomnia.co.uk
Benjamin Grosvenor
© Operaomnia.co.uk

Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet Fantasy Overture is one of the composer’s less frequently played works. Rather than following the plot of the play it alludes to certain episodes and characters. We had a suitably brooding opening and an evocative portrayal of the strokes of midnight by the Hallé’s horns, followed by a dramatic (even cinematic) depiction of the appearance of the ghost. Ophelia was represented by a graceful oboe solo, beautifully played by Stéphane Rancourt, which contrasted with more turbulent episodes and martial music associated with Fortinbras. The work ended solemnly suggesting the death of the Prince. If Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet lacks the big tunes of, say, Romeo and Juliet, it is strong on atmosphere and shows the composer’s subtle use of a large orchestra, splendidly performed.

What do you expect of a Romantic piano concerto? Dazzling solos for a virtuoso performer? Dreamy melodies? Memorable tunes? Exciting orchestral work? A rousing ending that will energise the audience? Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in E flat major has all of these, as well as being remarkably concise (it lasts only about 20 minutes) and formally innovative. The composer worked on it for 26 years until he had shaped it into the inventive and satisfying whole that has become a favourite of pianists, orchestras and audiences.

The Hallé and Sir Mark were joined by the brilliant young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor for this amazing piece. Grosvenor dazzled in the bravura passages, but also made the most of the lyrical sections. He demonstrated a fine rapport with the orchestra, visibly checking with the conductor and individual orchestral soloists (such as the clarinet in the first movement) with the result that all elements fitted together perfectly. The scherzo, with its unique triangle part, was played with lightness by both orchestra and soloist. The concluding movement brought together themes from earlier in the work in a dramatic manner with the soloist dominating. The contrast between the flamboyant and the reflective make this an audience-pleasing concerto but one with real substance, and this was a first-rate performance.

The Tchaikovsky and the Liszt augured well for the second half of the concert: a performance of Beethoven’s much loved Symphony no. 6 in F major, the “Pastoral”. Elder has established in recent years his Beethoven credentials, and as soon as the symphony began there was no doubting that this was a well-established partnership with the orchestra playing smoothly as if they were a single instrument. The layout of the orchestra, with cellos and basses divided in two and placed on either side of the stage with the violas in the middle seemed to add to the richness of the sound. And yet there was something missing. The first movement felt driven, perhaps a little forced, with no time to relax and enjoy the countryside without moving on to the next viewpoint. The Scene by the Brook was much more peaceful, with woodwind contributions rising magically out of the string textures, but it was still taken at a fair pace. The peasants’ merrymaking was energetic (with notably characterful woodwinds) but there was a lack of charm and humour. The thunderstorm was appropriately furious. In the finale (“Shepherds’ song, happiness and thanksgiving after the storm”) at last the happiness did not feel strained. This was really joyful music becoming peaceful, with a serene ending. If only the earlier movements had felt the same. 

***11