Sir Mark Elder is no stranger to Wagner — and it shows. Beginning his Hallé matinee of enchantments with the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, the insight into the story and music shone through. The Prelude began with one of the softest openings, despite being mellow and muted it was rich in colour and spoke immediately. As the cello line unfolded with tenderness and anguish, it was apparent this was going to be a rather special rendition. Elder was in no hurry, taking his time savouring every chord and dissonance. Time seemingly stood still in this deeply evocative reading. 

Sir Mark Elder
© Tom Stephens

The finely balanced orchestral sounds continued into the Liebestod. This grew with gravitas, the waves of emotion sweeping things along. Isolde’s feelings were clear as Elder’s peaks tugged at the heartstrings. With some highly effective rubato, things intensified, never loosing a strong rhythm, the music kept a strong footing to the most befitting of climaxes.

Samuel Barber is not immediately known for his stage works, but two excerpts from his 1946 ballet Medea, Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance were next on the bill. Originally for a chamber orchestra, the composer recast it for full orchestra in 1947. Elder addressed the audience with some insights into the story and the music. Describing Medea’s Mediation as “like a cradle song” and Dance of Vengeance showing “her frustration, her anger”, Elder certainly encapsulated these in his performance. The eerie opening of Medea’s Meditation, with its stark and rather Stravinskian textures, had a hypnotic spell all of its own. In the rage that followed, Elder never let the sound become overly harsh. Whilst a full-bodied and powerful tone depicting the most vibrant vehemence prevailed, The Hallé kept a little more aggression in reserve to increase the excitement later. Elder's balancing was again superb throughout, placing the harp and piano at the centre of the orchestra, allowing them to be heard clearly, especially with the piano’s repeated motif. 

The Hallé
© Tom Stephens

After the interval, departing from the legendary Celtic figures of Wagner’s opera and the Greek myth of Medea and Jason, came the fairy tale told in Tchaikovsky’s score to The Sleeping Beauty. Elder had chosen his own extracts to form a sequence of 45 minutes. Disappointingly neither Elder mentioned the numbers included nor were these stated in the printed programme, meaning only those with a comprehensive knowledge of the score would know which pieces were selected. However, this seamless sequence included the Introduction, the famous Waltz and the closing Apotheosis. Elder had made a fine choice here, keeping the momentum going there was never a dull moment as we were taken from musical episode to episode.  

Elder treated this dance music with the uttermost respect, the same as that which would be given to Tchaikovsky’s symphonies or concertos. The faultless playing from the Hallé was remarkable, truly elevating the music. Colours were sparkling, rhythms taut and there was a complete and utter sense of unity. Keeping the harp central once more was highly effective to the sound, whilst commendable solos came from Nicholas Trygstad (cello) and leader Roberto Ruisi. 

Despite there being no complete work one didn’t feel this was a bitty or ill considered programme — quite the contrary in fact. The three pieces were complete in themselves and complemented each other musically, emotionally and narratively. There was a wholeness that made this quite a remarkably spellbinding and bewitching concert indeed.