Tonight's Hallé programme, ostensibly linked to forthcoming Remembrance Sunday, was very refreshing in its originality. Eschewing the predictable Last Night of the Proms pieces, four unique and thoughtful works gave an altogether more interesting and meaningful reflection on the events of a hundred years past.

Rachel Nicholls © Clive Barda
Rachel Nicholls
© Clive Barda

The most boldly commemorative music came in Elgar's Spirit of England of 1915-17, a setting of Laurence Binyon's famous text including the lines “They shall not grow old...” That particular stanza comes near the end of the piece, in For the Fallen, which was suitably solemn in its funereal passages but also found a strikingly harsh, brittle, whispered tone for the more graphic stanzas. The subsequent subtle warming of choral sound for “At the going down of the sun” was deeply affecting.

So too was the naïve patriotism of the first movement. The very first line, repeated again at the movement's climax, ripped from the choir stalls with enormous ferocity, backed by the floor-rumbling Marcussen organ. The Hallé have a strong pedigree in big choral works of Elgar, and the sound here was instantly, unmistakably Elgarian. The intensity was further raised towards the end of the movement, with the strong hints of the Demons' Chorus from Gerontius.

Soprano Rachel Nicholls came into her own in the central movement, To Women, where she sang with a warmly coloured and soft edged timbre. The chorus again gave close attention to the text, with particularly sharp diction in describing the ‘stab of steel’. The movement closed with a beautifully elegiac viola solo. As a very cogent whole, Elder’s reading of the Elgar made amply clear the journey from flag-waving heroism to bleak desolation and disillusionment. It was a very powerfully made point.

The other big name on the programme was Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, also written during the war. For all the crisp, fresh pastoralism of the playing – the woodwinds’ cool morning bird calls at the opening and the horns’ swan-flight of the third movement – a notably strong prominence was given to the bleaker corners. Moments such as the dark bassoon and string lines in the first movement and the fragility of the Andante neatly referenced the rest of the programme.

Despite these hints of darkness, and the relatively brisk tempos employed for the whole symphony, plenty of moments of great musical beauty were allowed to shine. The tempos lent especial clarity to the long structure of the symphony, with a pleasingly organic sense of cohesion. Thus in the finale, the famous woodwind/cello melody took on a very long arc across barlines, as if tracing the swans’ flight across the sky. The final appearance of this famous theme began with a lovingly shaped flute solo before steadily building to a satisfying, though not overblown, conclusion. Any threat that the symphony would seem to dominate the concert was easily dispelled; instead, it was a very thoughtful component which added a great deal to the meaning of the programme.

Of the evenings’ two shorter works, Arnold Bax’s In Memoriam was the greatest revelation. Elder proposed beforehand that this might only be the third or fourth outing of the piece. Inspired by the composer’s great love for Ireland, it has a very programmatic feel, with its most memorable passage coming in the beautifully shaped long string melody with horn accompaniment. It had a lofty, weightless feel, and was given a renewed sense of affectionate nostalgia in its later reappearance. Winds and strings blended seamlessly for this, making a strong case for more regular programming of this work.

At the very beginning of the concert, Butterworth’s Shropshire Lad, inspired by A. E. Houseman’s poem of the same name, was as well played as the rest of the programme, especially in the rich clarinet and horn sound palette. There was also a neat sense of symmetry in the shaping of the piece. Its most affecting feature, though, was its very inclusion in the context of this programme, with the sunny innocence of the eponymous Lad a grim thought in the light of the composer’s death in the Somme in his mid-twenties.

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