An eccentric programme of music centred on the early years of the 20th century went down a storm at the Bridgewater Hall, with the world première of John Casken's new oboe concerto a grimly stark contrast to socialist ballet music by Shostakovich and Weill.

Mark Elder © Simon Dodd
Mark Elder
© Simon Dodd

The young Shostakovich wrote his ballet The Golden Age in 1929 after a request for music to accompany a story about the plight of a Soviet football team touring Western Europe. In the music hall scene (Act III scene 1) the decadent Western bourgeoisie are portrayed in a series of six dances, in which the Hallé found a great deal of wit and irony. The opening Tap Dance was oddly sinister, while the trumpet and xylophone solos were amusingly mischievous interventions. The xylophone playing was particularly memorable in the Polka, where the extended solos were given with great character in a relatively soft-edged sound.

The final two dances were enormous fun. "The Dance of the Diva and the Fascist" was noisy and decadent in the extreme, and the ensuing Can-can was brilliantly sleazy. The trombones, who had been providing frequent yawning glissandi, engaged in comic duets with trumpet in music of a distinct circus feel. It later became a furious frenzy with horns held aloft and great energy from all corners. After galloping to a riotous conclusion, Elder lunging the last note into the front desk of the cellos, the immediate giddy whoops from the audience were entirely appropriate. As someone later remarked, it was like a Russian version of Tom and Jerry cartoons.

John Casken's Apollinaire's Bird was one of those new pieces which one immediately wants to hear again. Commissioned by the Hallé, written for its Principal Oboe and dedicated to its Chief Executive, there was a strong feeling pre-concert of people willing it to go well. That it did, with soloist Stéphane Rancourt giving a tour de force of flawless technique and supreme musicality. The work is inspired by the poem Un oiseau chante, written in the trenches of the First World War by Guillaume Apollinaire, and is scored for oboe and large orchestra. The bird (oboe) hovers above the battle, often detached and acting as a reminder of the outside world, but movingly affected in the first part of the second movement.

The bleak textures of the first movement painted a stark image of the trenches, most of all in the vast battery of percussion, where cross-stage echoes of snare drum rim shots, cymbals and cabassa were distinctly battle erupted. From Rancourt's opening solo, a short figure which is repeated throughout the work, and later flashes of the sweetest avian chirp, he played with beguiling charm and strong, engaging character. He showed remarkable stamina to sustain such intensity. There was fine playing from his colleagues in the orchestra too. Carl Nielsen's own war-inspired Symphony no. 5 was brought to mind by some of the wilder clarinet solos.

Mark Elder did an excellent job of balancing the sound to allow Rancourt's playing to sit just above the orchestra, as well as pacing the greater structure to highlight the deeply moving playing in the second movement. Here the achingly mournful orchestral playing had a profound effect on the the bird, who briefly seems to feel the sorrows of the trenches with painful expression. The oboe's repeated perfect fifth figures above deep orchestral rumbles were shockingly, movingly bleak at the very end. It was a superb performance of an outstanding piece, exceptionally well received, and Casken, taking his bows, looked delighted. Intriguingly, the performance is to be released as a free download soon after the concert.

After a long interval to allow for an extensive reset of the stage, the orchestra returned, much reduced in number and squashed into a corner of the stage for Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins of 1933. His final collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, the 30 minute ballet depicts two sisters named Anna, in essence two sides of the same coin, in their exhausting pursuit of wealth across America.

The semi-staged performance, directed by Caroline Clegg, was an impressive success. The highlight was Jessie Buckley's extensive singing, narrating and berating of her sister for her sins of piously following her morals to the detriment of the family coffers . Her diction was immaculately clear (importantly, as it was too dark to read the libretto supplied), and she put an enormous depth of emotion into her singing). The drama was striking from early on: little was held in reserve, as Anna II's early reluctance to remove her clothes for money (Pride) gave way, leaving her writhing on the floor in minimal clothing. Anna Cooper danced with great elegance and controlled energy even in the grittiest corners. It was little surprise when she collapsed to the ground, motionless, at the end. The family, working as a Greek chorus, gave brutal admonishment to their sinful daughter, at times quite distressingly so, such as when denying her food in Gluttony. All four men sang with big, full toned voice, though their words occasionally struggled to come out with the clarity of Buckley.

The orchestral playing did a superb job of bringing a surprising level of colour and depth to Weill's writing. They were unobtrusive but characterful accompanists, providing great fun with brass and banjo (played by Principal Double Bass) in Los Angeles and touching beauty in Boston (Lust). In the latter a passionate violin solo and the soft accompaniment added a great deal of weight to the tragedy of Anna being denied her lover in favour of a richer man. The lighting was similarly subtle but effective, casting interesting shadows on the back wall and a seedy red glow over the Pride scene. It was a strong piece of drama, very successfully pulled off on the concert stage to the credit of all involved.