Sir Mark Elder conducted the Hallé in an unusual programme of music themed around hunting. There were many excellent performances, most memorably in Britten's Our Hunting Fathers, which added substantial depth to the evening.

Sir Mark Elder © Simon Dodd
Sir Mark Elder
© Simon Dodd

Assistant conductor Jamie Phillips began proceedings with a solid account of Haydn’s Symphony no. 73, “La Chasse”. As named Haydn symphonies go, this is a relatively rarely played work; Conrad Wilson’s programme notes suggest that something as simple as the symphony’s foreign title may be a contributor to this. It is, nevertheless, an innovative and delightful work, particularly when given treatment as good as tonight’s. Phillips took a fairly relaxed approach with a fluid minim beat in the first movement, not at the expense of accuracy but to the benefit of a sense of freedom.

After a pair of graceful inner movements, the finale was quite a change of direction. It has variously been played with and without trumpets and timpani,but the composer’s own preference was that they be included, as they were tonight. Having been silent for the rest of the symphony, their entrance added an extra layer of excitement to the energised orchestra. The two horns were the foundation of this. They were superb in their repeatedly exposed solos, carrying a bounding energy even through tricky grace notes. It was an early indication of the valuable work they would have to do all evening, perhaps predictable for a programme of hunting music.

Elder addressed the audience before most of tonight’s pieces. Before the Britten, he noted that the whole concert programme had been planned around this rarely-heard song cycle of 1936. It is a remarkable work with many unusual effects for singer and orchestra, and was greeted with derision by musicians at its first performance. The text comes from Britten’s collaboration with the poet W.H. Auden, who penned a prologue and epilogue for the cycle and adjusted the three inner songs. The prologue opens with similarly barren string chords to the beginning of the Four Sea Interludes before a series of well-coordinated stabbed notes dash through the orchestra. An accelerando and crescendo took the cycle into its second movement, “Rats Away!”. Soprano Giselle Allen (a late replacement for Emma Bell) brought a deeply menacing tone to much of this and the fourth movement. Her utterances of “Dominus, Deus” were almost guttural, working very well with the bass clarinet, before an aggressive “Amen”.

The third song, “Messaline”, concerns the death of a pet monkey. The tone here was of disturbingly strong grief, particularly in Allen’s closing repetition of “Fie, fie, fie”. There was a sense of breathless cursing in this, which was carried into the fourth song, the “Dance of Death”. From the final whispered “Fie” came a soft, fluttered call of “Whurret!” in a wonderfully still moment. A violent orchestral passage followed, with whooping horns and aggressive pizzicato giving a deeply menacing atmosphere to the village dance rhythms underneath. The finale continues the disturbing atmosphere with a childish tune repeated on the xylohphone. An excellent duet between Allen and solo violin brought the work to a soft close. It had been an excellent performance of this seldom-played work,which brought a dark tone to the evening.

The second half was substantially easier listening. The excerpt from Berlioz’s Trojans showed some lovely woodwind solos above soft strings, before more exuberance for the horn section as an approaching hunting party. The height of the ensuing storm was exhilarating, with three sets of timpani and bass drum rumbling, horns held aloft and the Hallé Choir at full pelt. The horns were again busy in Franck’s Accursed Huntsman. Though now not commonly programmed, this short symphonic poem previously occupied a central place in the orchestral repertoire, much loved for its clear programme describing a nobleman cursed for hunting on a Sunday. The orchestra seemed to enjoy playing it, fully embracing the count’s tormented flight from demons and leading to a big, shrieking close.

Weber’s overture, and, as an encore, Huntsmen’s Chorus from Der Freischütz rounded off the evening. The overture combined good clarity and attack in the strings with fine oboe solos. Perhaps the encore was at the request of the Chorus, whose role in the concert had been rather limited. The gentlemen gave a suitably manly account of it, big and vigorous around the horns, who must have been approaching exhaustion by this stage.

Finishing with an overture was one of many unusual features in the programme, which, as an alternative to the usual overture-concerto-symphony form, worked very well. It seemed not to have appealed to the usual audience, though, as the hall was perhaps only half full. Themed concerts sometimes run the risk of seeming trite and lightweight, but the fine performance of the Britten banished any threat of this tonight.

****1