This was a moving evening of relatively underrated, large-scale late romantic music, moving from Strauss’ youthful charm to the wistful eloquence of the mature Elgar.

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

Assistant Conductor Andrew Gourlay directed Richard Strauss’ Serenade in E flat for thirteen wind instruments with closely controlled expressiveness. The composer was only 17 at the time of its writing, yet it was well received by Hans von Bülow in Berlin and is still regularly programmed today. Here the music was treated with great care, opening tenderly and gentle, before unfolding into a broader, warm sound led by the principal clarinet. There was much to appreciate in the individual lines, with clarinet and oboe particularly beautiful of tone, and the ensemble was always clean and crisply coordinated. Here, though, was the one weakness of the performance: for all its technical accomplishment, Gourlay’s close management perhaps held back a sense of immediacy in the music which might have otherwise come from greater interaction between the players. Nonetheless, it was a very well polished performance, well shaped and always of fine tone.

Gustav Holst’s Hymn of Jesus, a setting of the Apocrypha of St John, was inspired in 1917 by the words ‘Ye who dance not, know not what we are knowing’. Holst set about writing a work for large forces, including spatially separated double chorus, trebles and men, which would encompass plainsong and dancing 5/4 rhythmic passages. The separation of the choirs was quite effective this evening: the trebles of the Hallé Youth Choir were positioned above the stage in the side circle, often singing with their backs to the rest of the hall, and a small group of male singers was placed behind the stage. The two principal choruses were split by just a few metres, and while there was certainly space (and occasionally musical potential) for greater separation, the great power they created when singing together was quite striking. They were also very effective at generating a full, rounded sound even when singing at heavily hushed levels. Their initial lines, after the short orchestral prelude, were magically ethereal before being taken up beautifully by cor anglais. The impression was of a very well drilled chorus, whose finely moulded ends of phrases were treated with great care.

Elder balanced his scattered forces to perfection, allowing solo lines prominence alongside offstage chants, holding the orchestra to a faint hum when required. The organ was never overindulged, instead working with basses and timpani to provide deep rumbles, particularly in the early parts of the work. He directed the long, gradual crescendi with good vision, and was well supported by orchestral playing which was gutsy in grand tutti passages and humble in supporting roles elsewhere. The five-in-a-bar dance figure remained spritely even when realised in full scoring with heavy brass. When the music began to re-settle towards its solemn conclusion, there was a wonderful moment when the chorus held the discordant ‘m’ of ‘The word of wisdom’ as a lingering hum, and the wandering ‘Amen’ hung in the air beautifully.

Another work of quietly contended closure after grander offerings is Edward Elgar’s Symphony no. 2 of 1911, which remembers various figures of personal and national importance, including Hans Richter and King Edward VII, who died in 1910. The discontentment of the First Symphony is carried into the Second, the listener being denied a full realisation of the frequently-expressed noble sentiments, most noticeably in the second movement. The piece opened, though, with a freely relaxed tempo in the ‘Spirit of Delight’ motif, aided by thickly warm viola and cello sections. Elder generally kept the tempo fairly relaxed, before increasing slightly for the recap of the opening theme and building to a large flourish to close the first movement. The rounded warmth of the strings was most evident in the noble melodies of the second movement, though Elgar never allows these to linger for long before directing the orchestra on a wandering path again. These abrupt changes in direction were helped by close enforcement of suddenly hushed dynamics.

The strings were excellent throughout, showing equally good phrasing and close attention to detail respectively in the long-arching lines and quick runs of the third movement. The fourth movement showed good dialogue between sections of the orchestra, sensitively taking up a theme before passing it along. The sense of restless inward searching continued in the long string lines, despite hints of the grandiose in some impressive bold horn playing. Later the spiky brass disruptions ceased as the tempo relaxed elegantly towards the soft final chords, giving way to a pleasingly full moment of quiet before the applause.

****1