Sir Mark Elder conducted the Hallé in a moving account of Shostakovich’s mighty Leningrad symphony and was joined by actor Samuel West for a Britten world première at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.

Mark Elder © Simon Dodd
Mark Elder
© Simon Dodd

The vast symphony, 80 minutes long and scored for legions of brass and percussion, is best known for its more dramatic passages, such as the first movement’s terrifying march and the shattering finale. In the shadows of these examples, however, there is also a great deal of soft, mournful music. Although the bigger passages were suitably cataclysmic tonight, Shostakovich’s soft lamentation of the plight of the Russian people came across uncommonly clearly. Criticisms of the symphony being far too long abound; I once observed someone snooze through any music softer than a sturdy fortissimo. In Elder’s hands, though, there was definite purpose and direction in the long, soft sections of the inner movements. Though quite different in style, there were moments of introverted beauty which were just as affecting as the loudest passage.

The string section’s full sound was central to maintaining the emotional intensity of the music, much helped by the presence of the double bass section at the very back of the orchestra. The opening “August in Leningrad” theme was thick and legato-heavy, giving way to a bustling, crisply-articulated depiction of life in the city. After good solos from piccolo and leader, the side drum rhythm began its long march with impeccable control at the softest dynamic. The part was later augmented by two extra players, David Hext leading them very well. Elder kept the march relatively steady, which seemed to add to the impact of the later variations rather than charging in aggressively from the outset. The eventual power was superb, much helped by ten of the brass section standing in the choir seats just above the orchestra, so that their sound projected directly into the centre of the hall. I am not sure I have heard anything louder in concert.

The woodwinds played well all evening, with good solos from bassoon, oboe and bass clarinet. Tempos remained on the slow side, and the absolutely steady pulse and dynamics gave a strong impression of the poker-faced absence of public emotion which Shostakovich noted. The return to martial themes in the third movement came via an aggressive crescendo and accelerando, but it was the fabulously elegiac playing in the soft corners which was the most moving.

The finale continued to be economical in tempos and dynamics, with the greatest noise saved for the very end. This highlighted a fine solo from principal flute, starkly contrasted to the fierceness of some alarmingly strong Bartók pizzicato. The quiet tension was well maintained through the final slow ascent to the pseudo-triumphant ending. When it came, it was palpable through the floor, and the final thundered timpani quavers finished things with resounding authority. The audience reaction seemed to be a collective exhalation, followed by a prolonged ovation.

By this time, the first half the concert felt like the distant past, but was memorable for a Britten première in his centenary year. Britten in Wartime is a sequence of excerpts from the composer’s incidental music for An American in England, a cross-Atlantic series of radio plays jointly commissioned by the BBC and CBS in 1942. In particular, three plays were highlighted: London by Clipper, Dover to London and Women of Britain. Its musical and narrative dialogues (voiced by actor Samuel West) were fascinating.

The work struck a good balance between light-hearted observations on Britain by Americans. There was an amusing passage on the “Great black buildings”, curious speech and “great symphony orchestra” of Manchester, but some serious points about the invaluable contribution of Britain’s women to the war effort also received extended commendation. The music was mostly quite repetitive, often revolving around a motif from Rule, Britannia, but there was also some fine horn playing from principal Laurence Rogers (Britten wrote the music with the legendary Dennis Brain of the RAF Orchestra in mind). There was some outstanding musical comedy in which stairs and escalators were depicted through trombone glissandi. Samuel West’s many accents were impressively done, ranging from British and American newsreaders to little old Lancastrian women.

As a prelude to the symphony, Britten in Wartime was perfectly judged, and I would be intrigued to hear more of the series. It was serious enough to avoid seeming a trite aperitif to the symphony, but the tambourine flourishes and comedy maintained a warm atmosphere.