Writing for The Manchester Guardian after the London premiere of the Sinfonia Antartica with The Hallé under Sir John Barbirolli, the great Neville Cardus wrote adoringly of the “spontaneous blend of vivid and of beautiful tone” and “swift imaginative blending of orchestral colours”. The same high praise could equally be applied to tonight's brilliantly conceived programme of the same symphony alongside Saint-Saëns and Berlioz.

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

This was an evening of uncommonly eccentric orchestral colours from the Italian caprices of Berlioz to Stephen Hough's washes of 'Egyptian' piano chords and the raw, jagged bleakness of the South Pole. Benvenuto Cellini, a mostly ignored opera on the life of the Florentine sculptor, is seldom played beyond its overture, a ten-minute party piece which romps between bombast and elegance. The former aspect is largely a result of the unusual scoring for three timpanists, allocating a G, B and D respectively. While parts of the overture rang out like cannon fire, there was great beauty to be found elsewhere in an attractive oboe solo and the pianissimo pizzicati softly murmuring the 'big tune' with flawless ensemble in the cellos and basses.

There was similar beauty to be admired in Stephen Hough's approach to Saint-Saëns' “Egyptian” Piano Concerto of 1896. With the strings reduced to 40 in number from 50 for Berlioz (and the full 60 for Vaughan Williams later), there was ample opportunity for delicately honed dialogue between orchestra and soloist. After the watery smile of the first movement, the second was an enthralling exploration of piano effects, with Hough's playing every bit as colourful as his socks. In the solo lines spread across three octaves or more, the top notes, in the very highest register of the instrument, were so soft as to seem more a bell-like ringing of harmonic overtones than concrete notes in their own right. Elsewhere the piano's long chords stretched out seemingly forever, their gentle perfume hanging in the air sensuously, making for an extraordinarily rich sound palette. The orchestra responded with great care and delicacy in some attractive passages of dialogue between soloist and violins.

The finale leapt vigorously into an irresistibly vivacious dance. Here, Hough thundered in the piano's lowest register, his left foot bouncing along beneath the piano. Any more heat in the last pages would surely have seen steam coming from the keyboard. A dreamily airy account of Debussy's La Fille aux cheveux de lin made for an attractive encore.

Vaughan Williams' symphonies have been a Hallé concert and recording staple in recent years. Tonight's performance of the monumental Seventh will hopefully make it to disc, leaving just the Ninth to be recorded. Originally written for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, the music is a graphic illustration of bleak polar landscapes. Here it was raw and brutal, moving slowly and glacier-like on a huge scale. Orchestral effects were embraced to their fullest: the bass trombone rasped, organ roared and offstage wind machines (I'm sure I could hear more than one) howled. The percussion section were kept busy between Saturnesque timpani blows and sparkling figures for marimba, vibraphone and glockenspiel, while the brass seemed to move as one in their huge chords. The Ladies of the Hallé Choir were stationed backstage and sang their ethereal, wordless vowels with evocative clarity and remarkable control. Soprano Sophie Bevan, similarly, sang her wordless lines with an attractively soft character, floating into the hall magically. 

The symphony's major justification for its classification as such lies in the recapitulation of the first movement's themes near the very end of the work, here presented as the emotional core of the work after a huge struggle. The only thing which seemed able to drag the music towards any sort of conclusion was a reappearance from the wordless chorus, now spread wide behind the stage, creating a striking stereo effect with the last murmurs of the wind machine. This was a memorable performance, and I left wishing it were more often performed.

****1