The 2013 Britten centenary celebrations are now well under way with every major and minor musical institution, British and foreign, scheduling a broad range of works in honour of Britten’s birth. The Hallé’s first contribution, under the direction of Sir Mark Elder, consists of a suite, compiled by Mervyn Cooke and Donald Mitchell, from Britten’s only full-length ballet score The Prince of the Pagodas. Following a two-week holiday to Bali in 1956, the collective elements of this remote eastern culture were to have a deep effect on several of Britten’s major compositions; originally choreographed by John Cranko and premièred by The Royal Ballet under Britten’s baton on 1 January 1957, The Prince of the Pagodas was well received until 1960 when it was dropped from the repertoire. British public interest was revived in 1988 following a performance and recording by Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta, and the addition of a new choreography by Kenneth MacMillan in 1989 reunited the work with The Royal Ballet.

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

The score is intense, exotic, charming and yet fiendishly difficult; peppered with a range of easily identifiable traditional influences from ballet masters Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, to a sense of “east meets west” in passages that are at once the direct result of Britten’s fascination with gamelan music (achieved with an augmented percussion section using western instruments to recreate gamelan sounds), juxtaposed with moments that are more Vaughan Williams and Eric Coates.

The 40-minute suite was tackled head-on by the Hallé, whose discipline and high levels of concentration allowed them to execute Britten’s extraordinary technical, rhythmic and melodic demands with confidence – to single out any particular department in a work such as this would be unfair to those unmentioned; given Britten’s requests from all players, the orchestra responded to each other sensitively, amounting to a perfectly balanced, nuanced and sincere performance of this rare, brilliant music that deserves to be better known. The score begs a repeat performance of this suite by concert orchestras, and is happily scheduled uncut with Cranko’s original choreography restored by Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2014.

Continuing in the vein of eastern influence, the concert quelled the frantic dance rhythms of Britten’s Balinese ballet, and relaxed into the three richly scored, sultry and seductive songs of Ravel’s Shéhérazade. Composed during 1903 in response to a popular 20th-century fascination with Orientalism, curiously Ravel did not select genuine eastern poetry (as Mahler and Bantock amongst others were doing) but instead selected three Orient-inspired texts by his friend – the poet Léon Leclère, writing under the pseudonym Tristan Klingsor. Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice joined the Hallé and sang with poise and conviction, but was occasionally thwarted by an unusual sound and language barrier that I have experienced before in the Bridgewater Hall – French doesn’t seem to carry very well here and, having once encountered the same problem with Carolyn Sampson in a programme of Rameau, in this instance I put it down to Ravel’s large orchestration and the acoustic rather than Rice’s projection. When fully audible, Rice’s deep, mature tone (not dissimilar from mezzo Sarah Walker) flowed like wine around Leclère’s words, mixing deliciously with Ravel’s score as it weaved in and out of exotic woodwind passages and soared above the gentle undercurrent of subdued strings. Principal flute Katherine Baker in particular displayed excellent control and sensitivity in exposed extended passages throughout the second song La flûte enchantée.

In the closing work of the concert, Elder led the orchestra in yet another well balanced, technically efficient and emotionally charged performance of music by Janáček – the graphic, exhilarating and blood-thirsty romp Taras Bulba. Following on from the success of the Sinfonietta earlier in the season, Taras Bulba was an opportunity for the orchestra to cast off their eastern veils (unsuitable attire for Cossack war) and revel in Janáček’s epic orchestral monument – a grim, largely scored orchestral rhapsody (including organ) in three movements concerning the pursuit and execution of Taras Bulba (leader of the Zaporozhye Cossacks in their war against the Poles) and his two sons, Andriy and Ostap, under bizarre circumstances. Orchestral diligence abounded once more and particularly stirring parts for the timpani, percussion and brass were played with zeal. The strings once more provided a firm foundation against Janáček’s quirky woodwind writing.

The Hallé’s consistently high standard of orchestral playing, regardless of the repertoire, is remarkable – the attention to detail coupled with the players’ sincere passion for making music resonates in the ears of an equally devoted audience. Hallé concerts are always well attended and, taking tonight as our example, it isn’t hard to see why.

*****