Mozart and Mendelssohn are surely two of the most popular composers for both the seasoned elitist and the irregular classical listener; tonight’s offering of time-tested favourites wrapped in the summer breeze of familiarity, coupled with the rare and exciting prospect of hearing Mendelssohn’s complete incidental music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was likely to be a draw – and it was.

Markus Stenz
Markus Stenz

Opening the concert, a curious arrangement of three seemingly random Mozart arias, only one of which was a true concert aria – the other two being drawn from Così fan tutte and La Clemenza di Tito. First up was “È amore un ladroncello” from Così, sung by the vivacious Swedish mezzo-soprano Anna Grevelius; the orchestra and audience bounced along with Dorabella’s enchantingly sweet victory number on the comparison of love to a thief, carried by Grevelius’ charming interpretation.

Secondly, in more solemn strains, the extended solo scena “Misera, dove son! Ah! non son’io che parlo”, composed in 1781 for soprano and orchestra. Mozart composed a number of arias purely for concert performance, independent of operatic production and yet, ironically, the majority of his chosen texts are taken from the works of Pietro Metastasio – the leading 18th-century opera librettist – and “Misera, dove son!” in particular is taken from the popular libretto Ezio, set in its entirety by Handel and Gluck. The orchestra, now joined by Australian soprano Valda Wilson, gave a competent account of music that is not Mozart’s best – it’s rather “run-of-the-mill” stuff, the likes of which Mozart could have tossed off by the cart-load between breakfast and brunch. A short accompanied recitative is followed by an extended aria in which Fulvia laments the King’s tyranny. The music is full of typical Mozartian devices – moments of sweet melancholy set against immediate changes of mood in short declamatory outbursts – and yet despite being handed the musical material on a silver platter like an 18th-cenutury vocal performance manual, Miss Wilson’s interpretation seemed lacking in variety and was overshadowed by a nervous, underpowered account.

Finally, “Parto, ma tu ben mio” from Tito; the orchestra was rejoined by Miss Grevelius and principal Hallé clarinettist Lynsey Marsh came to the fore for the extended virtuoso passages in what is really a duet between singer and clarinet. Grevelius’ impassioned reading displayed a fine coloratura technique, richly coloured and wholly convincing – both orchestra and audience were delighted by her performance. Lynsey Marsh never fails to give stirring performances whether in the orchestra or in her numerous solo opportunities – a focused, warm and mature tone coupled with a virtuoso technique, and Mozart’s occasionally unforgiving demands in terms of breathing displayed Marsh’s refined control – I look forward to her performance of Britten’s Movements for a Clarinet Concerto later in the season.

Following the interval, a rare treat – not only Mendelssohn’s complete incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but this carried along by a team of four young graduate actors from the Manchester School of Theatre. The Hallé’s collaborative projects are what make their larger enterprises so inviting, bringing in audience members from other sectors of Manchester’s artistic and creative communities, uniting all in entertaining and rewarding performances – there were many audience members present tonight who might not generally attend Hallé concerts, and this is surely the point – not only to build bridges with arts departments across Manchester, but also to bring new faces into an appreciation of great, live music.

The auditorium darkened and the words of Theseus and Hippolyta rang out in brief prologue before the overture. An earlier composition independent of the incidental music, Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream overture is one of his most enchanting; featuring stark contrasts of mood the work is remarkable in its musical material – Mendelssohn hints at memories of Mozart whilst the opening sparse chords point the way forwards to the overture of Lohengrin, and denser, boisterous passages might be the stuff of any Dvořák symphony. The Hallé played excellently throughout, save for one treacherous passage in the violins – speedy but scrappy, the sound was mudded, and I feel that conductor Markus Stenz could have been more helpful. As the work progressed the joy of performance intensified – the famous Scherzo bubbled and fizzed displaying the Hallé wind section at their most technically accurate. Brief opportunities for the Ladies of the Hallé Choir and girls from the Hallé Youth Choir were, as ever, unanimous in good diction and conviction leaving, I hope, directors Frances Cooke and Richard Wilberforce respectively pleased with their efforts.

The direction of action devised by David Shirley was amusing and sensitive – though, obviously much reduced, we were given a remarkably comprehensive account of Shakespeare’s play. It was regrettable that of the four actors, Puck was read from the script whilst the rest worked from memory – in particular the Lysander, Bottom and Pyramus of Will Finalson was often hysterical and Puck might have been better suited to his abilities.

Nonetheless, the evening was extremely entertaining and I hope will be the inspiration for other leading orchestras to collaborate with local dramatic talent.