One of the Hallé’s running projects this season is a survey of the six Shostakovich concertos. An ongoing feature of Mark Elder’s tenure as Music Director has been the success of his ‘big projects’ – Wagner operas, Elgar oratorios, and so on – and this concert neatly ticked both parts of the formula. Some clever marketing, tied in with local freshers’ weeks, meant that a sizeable audience turned out for this intriguing and highly memorable programme.

© Henry Fair
© Henry Fair

Viktoria Mullova was the star soloist for the first of the two violin concertos Shostakovich wrote, the particularly symphonic Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor. Her class was evident from the first notes, which even at soft dynamics purred with a rich, colourful sound. Her beguiling playing in the first movement drew the listener into the long lines, and especially later on in the concerto, she displayed the full extent of her technical mastery, with an enthralling cadenza in the third movement and several big flourishes in the finale.

The orchestral playing proved far more than mere accompaniment, though it did that with great sensitivity when required. Physically seating the harps in the centre of the stage, just in front of the woodwinds, proved a clever move in making them more central musically. Elder’s direction found a good balance in tightly linking soloist and orchestra and loosening the grip at times to allow for a rollicking Scherzo and dashing Allegro out of the embers of the third movement. It was a very fine start to the series, and firmly dispelled any quiet doubts that a season could be hung around the Shostakovich concertos.

Ravel’s ‘choreographic symphony’ Daphnis et Chloé is now more commonly heard in suite-form than in its original fullness. The risk in presenting the latter format is that certain passages seem empty without the choreographic component. Any threat in this regard was generally easily dispelled through intelligent pacing and the rich orchestral sound always on offer.

The opening scene was airy and spacious in atmosphere, much helped by the marvellously ethereal fluidity of the Hallé Choir under Elder’s batonless direction. Throughout the piece, they did a superb job of giving great colour and shape to their wordless vocalising. The narrative element came fromj the orchestra, where chief themes were given with great expressive beauty and reverence by solo flute and horn. The flute section, highly commendable all evening, was particularly graceful in representing Daphnis, although sonic elegance was rarely in short supply: even the angularity of a seven-in-a-bar passage would seem concealed behind the pliant, legato sound. This made the more violent corners, depicting the pirates in Part 1 and their war dance in Part 2, all the more striking.

That the longer dramatic thread of Ravel’s ballet was never missed was thanks to the enormous weight of personality given to each of the characters and scenes. Tom Davey’s eloquent cor anglais solo, and the way it was subsequently handed over with such care, was the pinnacle of this in Chloé’s dance of supplication. The pirate scenes, engaging most of the vast forces on stage, dashed along with gusto, with all eight percussionists and brass (especially horns) in fine form. Only briefly in the middle of Part 3 did the music seem to sprawl somewhat, before a thrilling final surge.

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