An evening of magic and mystery filled the Bridgewater Hall as Jamie Phillips led The Hallé in a collection of English Classics. William Walton’s Johannesburg Festival Overture introduced the programme in an explosion of exotic rhythms and colourful orchestration. The piece heralded an evening of colourful performances supported through clever instrumental partnerships.

Jamie Phillips © Russell Duncan
Jamie Phillips
© Russell Duncan

The programme continued with what promised to be the highlight of the concert: The Lark Ascending performed by the Hallé’s Lyn Fletcher. Undeniably one of England’s most celebrated works, The Lark is full of swooping melodic lines, natural harmonies and a sweetly singing solo line. The melodic flurries gave a lovely shape to the music that was complemented by beautifully sustained notes at the top of the instrument’s range. Fletcher demonstrated a variety of tones from soaring, pure lines contrasted by the rich, velvety tones of the lower strings. The feathery swoops dipped up and down the strings and was perfectly mirrored through the soloist’s use of dynamics, depicting the lark as he is “ever winging up and up” to sing of his love of the earth. As the piece draws to a close, the orchestra takes a step back and simply lets the music sing itself to sleep.

After the ensuing “Playful Pizzicato“ from Britten's Simple Symphony, a selection from Elgar’s Enigma Variations guaranteed to be another favourite. The brass blasted through in a blaze of glory in the seventh variation that was contrasted beautifully through the legato strings and expressive articulation and dynamic contrast in the eighth. The final note held a quiver of expectation as it melted into the majestic “Nimrod”. The opening was perhaps a little too overstated, as the music can simply play itself, but the ability of different sections to colour the music was truly remarkable. The cellos crept forward at just the right time before melting away again and the flute solo was well balanced. The steady crescendo leading to the climax was well handled by Phillips and the music wasn’t allowed to run away with itself.

Next came the star of the show: Malcolm Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter. Based on the poem by Robert Burns, a drunken Tam is chased home by a host of warlocks and witches. The very first note played by the strings tells us this is a story of magic and an air of mystery and expectation fills the air. The wind and piccolo add the Scottish flavour with a Celtic tune that is followed by the Scottish snaps in the bassoons. The clever use of glissando in the trombones with the syncopated accompaniment adds a comedy factor to the piece that openly mocks the central character. The orchestra demonstrated perfect timing and excellent communication as the rhythmic conversation between strings and wooden blocks are performed to sheer excellence. The trombones stole the show as their colourful playing and frequent use of glissando told the story and took on the characteristics of Tam. The piece hurtled towards chaos before arriving at a tremendous Scottish reel, filling the hall with a sense of national grandeur and sparky character off-set by the clashing trumpets.

The second half began with another magical tale. Elgar’s Wand of Youth tells the story of a fairyland. “The Sun Dance” began with a spritely start that was played perfectly together. The percussion added a touch of sparkle that warns the audience that this isn’t an ordinary story. Phillips played with the orchestra with warping ritardandos and tempo changes that helped the music spring to life. The clarinet cleverly led between melodic sections and the changes in articulation made for an engaging performance that flung you into the deepest, darkest Russian forest as the exotic use of percussion and cantering dances conjured up images of a lost land.

Another English favourite is Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves. Joanne Boddington gave a beautiful performance, opening the piece with a haunting tone, with just the slightest vibrato that instantly engaged the audience. Suddenly, the brassy blasts of a fantastic rendition of “The Storm”, from Peter Grimes, instantly woke them from their tranquillity.

Lead viola, Timothy Pooley, performed stunning solos in both Delius’ Prelude to Irmelin and Holst’s The Perfect Fool. The viola is the unsung hero of the orchestra, but Pooley demonstrated the true beauty of the instrument with the most sublime tone that resonated throughout the hall.

The Perfect Fool once again played witness to The Hallé’s ability to tell stories. The colour and fire of the performance conjured up a range of images that helped the audience really connect with the music. The charming celeste was perfectly balanced and sparkled as brightly as the stars in the sky. The energy and pizzazz of the orchestra helped this piece come to life as the orchestra took its leave to a fiery explosion of sound.

The surprise addition of the Finale from the Enigma Variations – an extra treat that showcased the majestic sound that engulfed Bridgewater Hall. The whole evening was thoroughly enjoyable and the orchestra excelled in its use of colour and storytelling.