Continuing the Hallé’s project of juxtaposing Beethoven symphonies with modern works, the underrated fourth symphony was flanked by works by Helen Grime and Igor Stravinsky, with an intriguingly placed Bach Suite closing the concert.

Mark Elder, © Simon Dodd
Mark Elder,
© Simon Dodd

Recently-appointed Hallé Associate Composer Helen Grime has enjoyed considerable success in her early years, with works performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, LSO and Philharmonia. Virga takes its name from the meteorological phenomenon of precipitation which evaporates before reaching the ground; with this in mind, the music is quite descriptive in an abstract way. Sun shines through the rain periodically, and a remarkable, prolonged, unaccompanied violin line provides a stark contrast from the dissonant rainfall in the centre of the piece. The orchestra played with great attention to the quirks of Grime’s score, with punchy interjections from muted tuba, bass trombone and timpani in opposition to sweeping clarinet melodies. The tuned percussion effects were pulled off very well, and the sense of ensemble throughout helped to anchor the music to its slow pulse, despite the frequent syncopated punctuation.

Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, one of his least often performed, was given an excellent reading, led with assurance by Elder, from the unhurried delicacy of the opening to the vigorous finale. The music was underpinned by firm conviction throughout, creating dramatic syncopations and pleasing contrasts between the adjacent long melodic lines and pianissimo rhythms of the first movement. Beethoven, as ever, refrains from convention, with unusual features such as the quiet timpani solos before the recapitulation bringing a startling surprise to the work. The woodwind section was superb throughout, particularly the first clarinet and bassoon. Their witty early exchanges and hugely impressive semiquaver solos in the final movement added great charisma to the performance, and they lilted through the third movement with bouncy vitality, with the oboe also shining in the trio. The strings played with supple tone, in the Adagio hinting at the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony, and elsewhere playing with powerful unity. The second movement closed with a delightfully intoned horn line, showing fine touch in the rising arpeggio figure. The finale maintained a wonderfully quick tempo, supported by finely controlled playing in the string section. The wind played with equal panache and care for the line, and the furiously quick string passages built great excitement, carrying a joyful arc of sound to the close.

Julian Rachlin, as soloist in Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, played with huge character and impressive technique, ably supported by fine playing by the Hallé. The opening movement of the concerto is strongly suggestive of the same composer’s theatrical Soldier’s Tale of 1918, with solo fiddle overlying marching figures from trombone amidst trumpet flourishes. Rachlin was very animated, and paid great attention to the nuances of the part, whilst also occasionally allowing his sound to sit beneath the prolonged woodwind retorts to his part. He accompanied well again in the second movement, this time interacting closely with some fine clarinet playing. The pared-down string section but reinforced wind made for a pleasing prominence of the soloistic wind writing. The third movement was at times poignant and a striking diversion from the previous material, Rachlin drawing great beauty from the solo line whilst backed by quiet rhythmic figures in the basses. He also made the most of the extremes of attack and sliding transitions between notes, adding remarkable colour to the music. The lively fourth movement was intense, helped by firmly placed accented staccato figures from the solo and flute flourishes. Further good playing was seen from the first and second horn and the bassoons in their respective countermelodies to the solo. Elder conducted the widely variable beats seamlessly and shaped gliding, broad phrases in spite of the acutely attacking immediate music. The piece closed with excitable vigour in a further display of excellent solo and orchestral playing, with a richly-deserved warm reception.

The final work of the evening, JS Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D, was given unusual prominence in being performed in such circumstances. The orchestra, for the most part standing, played very well, bringing attractive touches and modern techniques to the music. The prominent first oboe part was played superbly, leading with lovely tone and ensemble with the violins. The trumpets, with many awkward high figures, played perfectly throughout, both joyously decorative and agile. They infused a spritely energy into the music, which was very well shaped by Elder’s direction, achieving pleasing effects with the score in many places, drawing out certain lines and pulling the sound into a very musical whole. The famous Air was tenderly lyrical, with soft legato well backed by the continuo. Elsewhere the music was crisp and light and full of lively cheer. The closing Gigue had a joyful bounce, helped by good trumpet playing and interaction with the timpani. The oboe again led well, taking the orchestra into a very satisfying close to a fascinating concert.