The Hallé’s New Year concert brought a focus on Viennese operetta as well as the music of Johann Strauss II. Franz von Suppé’s overture Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna was, therefore, an ideal starter. Its dramatic opening was followed by a beautiful cello solo (played by principal Nicholas Trygstad) and an exciting conclusion. Suppé’s overtures seem to have rather fallen out of fashion recently and this is a shame. They are tuneful, skilfully put together and a fine start to a concert whether of more serious or lighter fare. Conductor Stephen Bell elicited spirited playing from the orchestra, as he was to do in the other purely orchestral items on the programme. He also introduced the pieces to help the audience enjoy the music and its context.

Stephen Bell and the Hallé
© Alex Burns | The Hallé

The bigger works by the younger Johann Strauss were particular highlights of the concert. The first half finished with Roses from the South, a sequence of waltzes deriving from a now forgotten 1880 operetta, The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief. This was real “feel-good” music given with what seemed to me to be a genuine Viennese lilt. A less familiar delight was Wiener Bonbons, a confection originally written for a hospital fundraising event, contrasting reflective and exuberant melodies. The concert concluded with the Waltz King’s masterpiece: An der schönen blauen Donau, Bell and the orchestra giving a superb account of the ever-popular Blue Danube.

Our soloist for the afternoon was soprano Sky Ingram who sang arias from various operettas in the Viennese tradition. Here lay my issue with this otherwise delightful concert: for most of the time I could not hear her. It may have been that she does not have a very powerful voice, or that Bell needed to make the orchestra play more quietly so as not to overpower her. Ingram’s contributions included some familiar pieces such as the Csárdás from Die Fledermaus and some that were new to me, but I had no way of telling whether “Mein Traum, mein Traum” from Emmerich Kálmán’s Empress Josephine and “Ich schenk’ mein Herz” from Carl Millöcker’s Die Dubarry were actually as appealing as their orchestral elements suggested. I found myself wishing that her voice had been amplified.

Sky Ingram and the Hallé
© Alex Burns | The Hallé

There were two interlopers from outside Central Europe. Ronald Binge’s Faire Frou-Frou fitted in perfectly with a Straussian style applied to evoke Parisian nightlife with witty allusions to the French national anthem. The second, Gershwin’s By Strauss relies on the audience being able to hear the singer’s words, which I could not.

There was another unexpected treasure in the programme. This was an atmospheric little piece by Johann Strauss II which had nothing to do with the ballroom or the theatre, his Romance in D minor for harp, cello and orchestra which was beautifully played by Eira Lynn Jones (harp) and Trygstad. I certainly hope to hear it again.

Some other short pieces received stylish performances: Eduard Strauss’s Mit Dampf, a quick polka celebrating the new-fangled steam locomotive, the Entrance March from Act 3 of The Gypsy Baron and the brilliant Tritsch-Tratsch Polka. And of course as an encore we had the Radetzky March to send us out smiling into the New Year.