The Hallé’s most recent concert at the Bridgewater Hall was conducted by the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, Markus Stenz. On paper the programme might appear daunting but anyone who was put off by the prospect of a new work, a rarity and a symphony often considered problematic missed a treat.

The concert began with a rare performance of eccentric American composer Charles Ives’ short piece The Unanswered Question. Four flautists went onto the otherwise unoccupied platform and sat in their usual places. Then the lights went out and a very slow, haunting melody played by a string orchestra seemed to surround the audience. In fact the players were positioned round the hall out of sight of the audience. While the strings continued their theme a solo trumpet played a melody which was the title's question. It was only when the flutes responded to the trumpet that the lights in the hall came back on. The trumpet repeated the question several times and each time the flute quartet responded, each time sounding more agitated and dissonant, until the seventh time when no answer came and the lights were extinguished once more until the strings fell silent. This was an amazingly atmospheric opening to the concert and the experience was heightened by the staging of the work.

Helen Grime © Jonathan Wrather
Helen Grime
© Jonathan Wrather

After the Ives came the world première of the Concerto for clarinet and trumpet by Helen Grime who has been the Hallé’s Associate Conductor since 2011. A new work can be an intimidating prospect but the Hallé has taken steps to ease audiences into the work. The Hallé’s publicity letter sent out a few weeks before the concert set expectations high: “the demanding, deeply atmospheric solo parts weave in and out of the orchestra, combining to produce wonderful sound, guaranteed to find a regular place in the repertoire”. A rehearsal video was released on YouTube and in a talk before the concert the composer and conductor discussed the work.

The concerto was written for this evening’s soloists, Lynsey Marsh and Gareth Small, who are the Hallé’s principal clarinet and trumpet respectively. The composer has spoken of writing the work in view of the lyrical playing of both soloists, who negotiated with great skill the complex solo lines which sometimes went separate ways and sometimes converged. Grime brought out different sonorities of the solo instruments. The solo trumpet had to use different mutes at some stages of the piece and changed instruments to a flugelhorn part way through the second movement. A prominent feature of the work was the creation of special sounds by the use of unusual groups of instruments both on their own and in combination with the soloists. Also striking was the use of the orchestral wind instruments, notably the flutes and oboes in the first movement and the clarinets and trumpets at the beginning of the second movement.

This was not an immediately accessible work but some parts seized the listener’s attention immediately, such as the slow ending to the first movement and the chorale of the orchestral trumpets and clarinets at the beginning of the second and the work received an enthusiastic reception. Will it find a regular place in the repertoire? Perhaps. I certainly hope to have an opportunity to hear it again.

The reminder of the evening was devoted to the Symphony no. 1 in B flat minor by William Walton. Although it is not performed very frequently it has some enthusiastic advocates, one of whom is this evening’s conductor, Markus Stenz. He communicated his enthusiasm for this symphony to the orchestra and the audience.

It is a work of great beauty and almost Beethovenian seriousness. The first movement is a passionate drama. The second movement is a scherzo but it is presto con malizia. If it is a joke, it is an angry, cruel one. The slow movement brings no relief either; it is desperately sad. The first three movements were first performed without a finale and the complete work was played in full almost a year later in 1935. In some performances the fourth movement can feel disappointingly weak in comparison with what has gone before but this evening Stenz made sure that there was no reduction in the intellectual drive. The finale had something of the grandeur of some of Walton’s works for special occasions such as the Coronation Marches but without any lessening of the tension, in keeping with the rest of the symphony. The thrilling last few minutes dominated by the timpani brought to mind Shostakovich. Was this really triumphant music, or was there something disturbing lying not far below the surface? I for one was convinced that this is a major symphony.